Denver — A stiff and spirited defense is beginning to emerge from the embattled steelworkers union. The latest sign: last week's announcement that the United Steelworkers of America (USW) is trying a new strategy in its bitter, year-long strike at Texas and Arizona copper mines of the Phelps Dodge Corporation.
The new strategy is a corporate campaign - an attempt by unions to put pressure on a company through its investors. The steelworkers believe such a strategy could work against Phelps Dodge, because of its apparent financial problems.
''We have learned that the Wall Street creditors are the company's only hope for survival,'' USW president Lynn Williams said in a news conference here.
Many of those same creditors also hold strike, pension, or health and welfare funds of many unions. The actual amount of money involved is not yet known, but at least 16 unions have been found with financial links to the 12 major creditors of Phelps Dodge.
''We intend to question them (the creditors) about the creditworthiness of Phelps Dodge - while we of the labor movement question our continued relationships with these institutions,'' president Williams added.
There are other signs that under the leadership of Mr. Williams the USW is trying to pull itself together, labor observers say.
''With the Williams presidency, there is evidence that the international (union) is moving in ways it hasn't in the past,'' says Jack Metzgar, research director of the Midwest Center for Labor Research. ''It's being creative.''
In Chicago, for example, the USW was party to a lawsuit against US Steel Corporation for shutting down its huge South Works steel plant. Along with the city of Chicago, the union is sponsoring a study on the feasibility of keeping the plant running. If US Steel refuses to reopen the plant, the hope is that Chicago can take over the property and find someone else to run the plant, perhaps the steelworkers them-selves.
''It seems like the international is trying to do much more to save South Works,'' says David Bensman, associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. The USW is also showing ''much more active support than one would have expected'' for an embattled Chicago-area local, he says.
A few weeks ago, Williams attended a rally put on by Local 15271 to dramatize its three-month battle with the Danly Machine Corporation, a Cicero, Ill., machine-tool company owned by the Ogden Corporation.
Danly has begun to hire replacement workers for the plant, after the local refused to go along with the company's demand for contract concessions. The local is also using a corporate campaign as one more tool to pressure the company.
Edward Sadlowski, a union subdistrict director who is heading up the strike, cautions against playing up the significance of Williams's visit, since the international has always backed its locals during a strike.
There is ''never divisiveness when you have crisis and strife and strain,'' says Mr. Sadlowski, who seven years ago ran for the international presidency as an insurgent, but lost to Williams' predecessor, Lloyd McBride. Where a strike is concerned, ''the fact remains that I'm in the same army as the Williamses and the McBrides.''
''Yes, we've always pulled together,'' agrees Bernard Kleiman, general counsel for the USW. ''But we're pulling more together now.''
One reason is that the union is hurting so much.
The past recession has perhaps hit the steelworkers more than any other major union, labor observers say. Membership is down one-third from prerecession levels. Even union leaders, like former United Auto Workers president Douglas Fraser, believe the domestic steel industry faces a permanent contraction.
Meanwhile, US Steel, the largest domestic steel producer, is taking a harder line with the union by ignoring provisions in the master contract or by asking for changes in current local agreements, Mr. Kleiman says. ''The grievances are piling up by the hundreds.''
Future collective bargaining is also likely to change. A few weeks ago, National Steel Corporation announced it would try to negotiate a separate contract with the union when the current agreement expires two years from now. In the past, the nation's steel producers bargained as a group, with the negotiations led by US Steel. It is unclear what effect this will have on bargaining.