The success of employers in persuading unions to agree to cost-cutting concessions faces an important new test. The basic steel industry and United Steelworkers seek for a third time to negotiate a contract to replace one due to run out Aug. 1.
The steel talks in Pittsburgh are the first in 1983 for major employers and unions. What happens there could be an important factor in bargaining involving several million workers during the remainder of this year.
The new talks, now in an ''exploratory'' stage, will try to work out by March 1 an agreement acceptable to the union's local leaders. Last year, these leaders and union rank and file, many of whom are jobless, rejected concessions to eight major steel companies.
The renewed talks are scheduled to begin formally on Feb. 15. And they once again will reflect the pressures and conflicts between union officers and negotiators, who recognize what needs to be done to help companies weather critical times, and the rank and file, which is more concerned about contract terms that affect workers personally.
The hard-line position other unions are taking is evident in the 103-day-old United Auto Workers strike against the Caterpillar Tractor Company. The UAW charges that Caterpillar is demanding a wage freeze, reduced cost-of-living adjustments, and less paid time off - ''massive retrogressions and take aways,'' the union says. Caterpillar says that it must have concessions to help it survive the recession and to reduce the competitive advantage now held by low-cost imports.
Since a settlement was reached by UAW and Allis Chalmers Corporation, also involving concessions, new efforts are now under way to thaw the frozen bargaining positions of Caterpillar and the UAW and end the strike by 21,000 unionists which has forced layoffs of another 5,500 workers.
As for the steel industry, bargaining began early. The Steelworkers rank and file rejected concessions negotiated in July and November of 1982. In each case they said they were unconvinced that giving ground would help the industry restore lost jobs.
The urgency of negotiating an acceptable contract is greater now. Unless one comes quickly, US industries that depend on a steady supply of steel will begin placing orders overseas to hedge against a possible strike in August. This could cause long-term problems for US mills because most foreign producers require guarantees of future orders if steel is shipped to new customers.
To speed bargaining, local steel union leaders who met in Pittsburgh Feb. 2 indicated a willingness to make concessions to employers in ''distressed'' industries - such as the steel industry - while continuing to bargain normally with ''healthy'' industries.
The committee drafted a program that expressed ''special concern'' about increasing union security (job protection and creation) and on providing income for the 160,000 steel workers who have been laid off. Specifics of the union program will not be announced before bargaining begins formally. But the union will insist on a number of points:
* Wage or benefit cuts made in 1983 must be restored during the term of the agreement.
* Reductions may be restored ''in cash, profit sharing, preferred stock, or a similar program,'' a provision that provides employers considerable flexibility.
* Cost-of-living provisions in the current contract must be maintained; steel companies have complained that these are too high and too unpredictable.
* There must be a moratorium on plant shutdowns during the term of the agreement.
* Savings under a cost-cutting contract must be invested in facilities where members work.
* There must be immediate relief for those out of work.