More than 20 years of detente between the big steel corporations and the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) ended abruptly this summer when presidents from local unions voted against contract concessions reportedly totalling $6 billion. Coming upon the heels of concessions by other major unions and despite intensive proselytizing by Big Steel, this militant stance was all the more surprising because it contradicted a concessionary mood among top steelworker officers. USWA President Lloyd McBride was quoted as being ''disappointed we could not reach an accommodation.''
This controversial vote was a rare glimmering of democracy in an autocratic union which had grown fat during the years of good times.
Saying ''no'' to concession demands was a victory for rank-and-file steelworkers which contrasts with previous steel union conventions and contract negotiations where the national officers have always called the tune. In this instance, the officers had to recognize the political realities and recommend a veto of corporate ultimatums.
When Big Steel ended decades of industrial detente, it was the shop floor-level union member who stood ready to take up the challenge.
Even many local presidents were so used to the years of compromise and ''labor peace'' that they sat stunned behind their desks at union halls. For these local presidents, their encounter of the third kind began when national union officers called them to a June 18 basic steel negotiating conference without informing them of the agenda. The local presidents and members could only suspect the real purpose of the meeting from news reports concerning steelworker concessions.
At this basic steel meeting, local presidents discovered that, not only were the corporations asking for massive but unspecified cuts in ''production costs, '' but that their union's top officers had been in secret negotiations for months. They were shown a slide presentation which slung mud at steelworkers' wages and work habits as well as foreign imports, without ever getting a speck of guilt on the lapels of industry management.
As a result of this process, the once-dormant division between national officers and local union members has burst into the open.
While there has always been some opposition to the top officers, most of it was from political opponents whose main differences concerned the lack of democracy in the union or complaints on the dues structure, rather than the basic policies of the union leadership.
The concessions defeat for top officers and corporate executives did not originate in this opposition grouping. Instead it was a spontaneous rejection by the overwhelming majority of union members. Contrary to many expectations, as the steel industry has dropped further into economic depression and with more than 100,000 workers laid off, steelworkers have only more firmly rejected blame for steel industry problems.
Members of 300 local unions instructed their presidents to reject any concessions at the basic steel meeting. This anti-concessions movement surfaced in initiatives by small locals, like that at US Steel's Irvin, Pa. works, which pulled together a coalition of 200 USWA presidents to oppose any concessions.
The USWA has dropped in membership from 1.4 million two years ago to less than 900,000 today. Its policies over the last several decades have put wages before workplace control and taken power away from the shop floor union representatives.
Actions such as the 1971 Experimental Negotiating Agreement, which sold the right to strike in exchange for wage guarantees and inflation protection, were only lazily opposed by steelworkers during the years of good times and labor peace.
In the harsh glare of economic disaster, rank-and-file workers are beginning to focus on their union's inadequacies. The undemo-cratic restriction from direct participation in contract negotiations continues to rankle them, but other broader issues are also coming to the fore. The union's need to organize workers is underlined by its devastating drop in membership. Exclusive of the Newport News, Va., Shipbuild-ing Company, there have been few attempts by the USWA to organize the nonunion 80 percent of the work force, which is concentrated in the southern section of the country. Nor have there been any all-out efforts to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act which impedes unionization on almost every level.
Steelworkers have traditionally regarded their high pay as compensation for the unhealthy conditions under which they work. Good pay is no longer enough when a worker with 20 years seniority cannot be certain of his job. The opposition to concessions comes from the realization that job security necessitates control over the work process and a unionized work force, not simply good wages.
The polarity between rank-and-file steelworkers and their top officers reflects this deepening reality. The average union member has known that his top leadership often had a different perspective than his own but, with economic disaster, the incentive for change had gained urgency. Steelworkers are beginning to realize that, without strong unions throughout the work force and in their own work place, they will be eternally vulnerable to corporate attack.