The steel industry, like its product, is known for its toughness. But after the month of October, when steel imports flooded into the country, the industry cried ''uncle.''
Now, a high-level delegation, composed of Secretary of State Alexander Haig, Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige, Special Trade Representative Bill Brock, and Agriculture Secretary John R. Block, is on its way to Brussels. They will try to talk their European counterparts into reducing the level of steel exports. If the Europeans don't voluntarily reduce the level of exports to the United States, the steel industry says, it will file antidumping suits against them. From Washington, Peter Grier writes about the administration's goals and aims in the negotiations. And, from New York, Ron Scherer writes about the state of the industry.m
Many of the big blast furnaces around the country are cold right now. The amount of molten steel being poured into slabs is a trickle, and layoffs in the industry are high.
This is the picture the steel industry paints of itself as it waits to see what happens in Brussels during the forth; coming ''steel summit.''
''Are imports squeezing us?'' asks Bruce Davis, assistant vice-president for public affairs at Bethlehem Steel. ''Can't you tell from our squeal?'' he retorts, only partly in jest.
Dr. Robert E. Boni, group vice-president for Armco Steel, adds that ''imports are affecting the Eastern steel division, which makes flat rolled steel products; the Southwestern division, which makes plates and structurals; and the stainless steel division.''
W. J. De Lancey, chairman of Republic Steel, says the industry has suffered through ''seven consecutive months of high and record high imports -- much of it at prices which reflect dumping or subsidization by foreign governments -- which has created an intolerable burden for the domestic steel industry.''
Industry sources point to the recent bankruptcy of the McLouth Steel Company in Detroit as another example of the effect of increased imports. McLouth, a producer of flat-rolled steel, winced as the auto industry reduced its orders. It also melted from the heat of a rapid rise in flat-rolled steel imports - the company's main product.
The numbers surrounding the industry speak for themselves. Some 63,290 workers out of 371,000 are laid off, and another 14,400 are employed on a short workweek. Total capacity utilization has dropped to 59.3 percent. At US Steel, the giant of the industry, capacity utilization is down to 50 percent. For the year, analysts are estimating steel shipments at about 88 million tons, up slightly from last year. And imports, which normally constitute 15 to 16 percent of apparent supply, now represent 17.85 percent.
As steel shipments have plummeted recently, so have earnings prospects. Eric Efron, an analyst with A. G. Becker Inc., notes that earnings ''will fall off the table'' in the fourth quarter. ''What we basically have is an inefficient steel industry whose earnings are being hurt by cyclical downturn in demand. This problem is exacerbated by higher import levels.'' Furthermore, he says, he doesn't see any recovery starting before the second half of next year.
Another analyst, Charles Bradford of Merrill Lynch, points out that the recovery will depend on the level of interest rates, the possibilities of an auto strike in the fall, and the value of the US dollar. Mr. Bradford says that should interest rates come down, a strike be averted, and the dollar fall, the industry should rebound.
According to the American Institute for Imported Steel, the industry did not have to end up in as bad straits as it has. If steel companies had reinvested their profits in steel operations instead of diversifying, the situation could have been avoided. Furthermore, the institute maintains, most of the imports have been in the ''oil country'' or tubular products, which are in short supply in this country. Finally, it asserts that the strong dollar and weak European currencies have made the European producers the lowest-cost producers of steel in the world.
The industry has reacted strongly to the institute's charges. Mr. Davis of Bethlehem Steel says imports have shifted from oil-country steel to the ''heart and soul'' of the industry: rolled product for the auto industry and plate product. ''In a period of weak demand,'' Davis says, ''importers have gained a greater share of what business there is to be taken.''
Bethlehem Steel figures that if import levels had held at 15 percent of apparent supply, its own shipments would have increased an extra 230,000 tons in the third quarter. With a profit of $150 a ton, the company would thus have made an extra $35 million, enough, Davis says, ''to purchase an additional continuous caster and other modern equipment.'' He claims the surge in imports ''is hurting our modernization program.''
Many of Wall Street's steel analysts believe the companies are wrong in pursuing antidumping suits. David Healy, an analyst for Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc., points out that most of the imports to date have been in the oil country supplies, adding, ''I'm basically a free-trader.''
And Bradford of Merrill Lynch says the steel industry's efforts are ''misguided.'' He adds, ''By constantly attacking steel imports, the domestic steelmakers are, in effect, also telling the United Steelworkers Union that the lack of productivity growth during the last decade is not the main problem (which it is, in our opinion), but that imports are the key problem.'' The steelworkers are among the highest-paid domestic manufacturing workers.
Bradford also points out that many of the domestic steel producers are buying imported slabs of steel themselves from Stelco in Canada, since it is cheaper than their own steel and of better quality. And, since the Europeans have announced a price increase in January, analysts point out that there has been some advance buying.
Not all the steel mills are hurting. The mini-mills are still expanding. Using scrap as a raw material and employing nonunion labor, such companies as Nucor and Florida Steel are building new plants in Utah, Texas, and Florida. These mini-mills, Mr. Efron points out, are far more economical than the giant mills.
Steel imports, average net tons per month Product 1st 1st 2nd 3rd Oct., half, quarter, quarter, quarter, 1981 1980 1981 1981 1981 Sheet, hot rolled 139,000 65,000 121,00 152,000 241,000 Sheet, cold rolled 134,000 63,000 115,000 166,000 207,000 Sheet, galvanized 134,000 61,000 95,000 131,000 124,000 Plates 166,000 162,000 211,000 248,000 255,000 Structural shapes 156,000 138,000 188,000 184,000 144,000 Pipe and tubing 291,000 426,000 567,000 618,000 536,000 Source: American Iron and Steel Institute, based on US Department of Commerce data.