Chicago — On a windswept parking lot in front of the Republic Steel plant here, a steelworker with thick black hair stops a moment. ''I think it's important,'' he says of the contest for president of the United Steelworkers (USW). But, declining to give his name, he adds, ''As of right now, I don't think it matters.''
About a third of the union membership voted last month in the sometimes bitter race between acting president Lynn R. Williams and union treasurer Frank McKee. This week, the union officially begins to tally the vote and probably next week will take up the vote protests and challenges in several union locals, says Russell Williams, USW communications director.
With about 85 percent of the vote in, unofficial counts put Mr. Williams ahead with 174,631 to Mr. McKee's 114,500.
Whoever wins control of the troubled union will have to regain the confidence of its members, observers say.
''A lot of 'em just gave up'' on the union's national leadership, agrees Tom Pinkerton, a steelworker here at Republic. He says they feel betrayed by the leadership, which last year made concessions to steel companies. Their most immediate concern, he adds, is not the union leadership but their own jobs.
''I think I'll survive,'' says Mr. Pinkerton, a 25-year veteran. ''But I don't know about anybody else.''
The situation is especially critical at Republic because of its merger with LTV Corporation.
''Nobody knows what's going on,'' says Dennis, a steelworker recently rehired after being laid off for 18 months. ''We're all scared. I feel I've got another month (with this job).''
Workers here say they don't know whether the merger will mean an expanded plant here in south Chicago or none at all.
When asked if the merger will benefit or hurt workers here, ''it's half-and-half,'' says James, who works in the 10-inch mill. ''There's a little talk about things getting better - but not much.'' Like many others here who belong to Local 1033, James didn't vote.
The special vote was held to replace Lloyd McBride, who passed on suddenly Nov. 6 while he held office. Both Williams and McKee have vowed to end the concessions to steel companies and to organize workers more vigorously. But analysts are not sure that either one can because of the industry's problems with foreign competition and weakened demand for several steel products.
These problems have had a severe impact on the union.
Active membership, which stood at 1.4 million in 1979, is now around 750,000. About 1 million workers were eligible to vote because union rules allow those laid off within the past two years to participate. But voting among unemployed steelworkers appears very low, Mr. Gibbons says.
''The sad thing is that when members were getting really involved - ethnics, blacks, Latinos - this (the contraction in the industry) had to come,'' says William J. Adelman, coordinator of the Chicago Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois.
''There's not going to be a vast change (in the leadership's direction),'' says Bob Henderson, chairman Local 1033's pension committee . But he expressed disappointment that less than half of the local's membership voted.
One main issue in the race was nationality.
Many workers here at the Republic plant said they voted for McKee because he was a United States citizen while Williams is Canadian.
But Mr. Henderson doesn't buy that. ''I don't think we have to fear Canada,'' he says. ''I think we need a lot more togetherness.'' Henderson voted for Williams although most members of the local who voted backed McKee.
Pinkerton was one. ''At least he worked in the mill,'' he says.
Williams has been criticized because he has only worked a few months in a fabricating plant.
During the campaign, Williams stressed that the issue was not experience, but ability.
Even among US-based steelworkers, not counting Canadian USW members, Williams appears to have won a narrow victory.
Late last month, Williams claimed that he had won the contest for the union presidency. McKee, however, has not formally conceeded the election.
Williams has suggested that the union organize small specialty-steel mills, which are becoming more important to the industry. Currently, most are not represented by the USW.