Local leaders of the United Steelworkers have rejected a cost-cutting agreement with the basic steel industry for the second time in four months. And a scramble to buy steel abroad as a hedge against a possible nationwide strike next August is a very real threat to the industry.
The union and the steel industry had reached a tentative settlement Nov. 18 on an early 45-month contract. It would have reduced wages and benefits about 10 percent initially and given other substantial concessions to a deeply depressed industry.
The agreement was turned down 231 to 141 largely because it lacked firm job guarantees sought in exchange for contract concessions. Lloyd McBride, president of the steelworkers, admitted disappointment and said that further negotiations are now unlikely before next May. ''I recommended this agreement. Our officers recommended it. Our executive board recommended it unanimously. I wish this vote had gone the other way. Now our contract will stand its term and expire on schedule next August,'' Mr. McBride said.
Meanwhile, the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and the Chrysler Corporation are returning to bargaining tables in the United States and Canada, hoping to end a Canadian strike that is having a serious impact on Chrysler's US operations and could jeopardize the future of the US automaker.
In the steel and auto situations, powerful and traditionally militant unions have backed away from demands that, in the judgment of their executive boards, could have slowed their eventual recoveries from critical financial conditions. Now steel's local leadership has balked at concessions.
Talks between the steelworkers and companies had been quietly under way for several weeks. In the final days, union officials say they had to ''swallow hard'' in completing an agreement that was subject to local approval.
In July, the union rank and file rejected a settlement that would have frozen wages in return for more job security and reinforced jobless pay for those now unemployed in an industry operating at only 40 percent of capacity. Dissatisfied unionists demanded further bargaining or immediate raises.
Instead, the agreement just reached would have reduced raises and benefits that now average $23.40 an hour. Wages would have been cut $1.50 an hour and benefits $0.75 an hour in the first contract year beginning Dec. 1. Pay increases in the second and third years would have restored most of the lost money.
In the auto industry, the UAW and Chrysler failed to reach a US contract agreement, but union members voted to stay on the job and resume negotiations after the first of the year. Bargaining separately, UAW members in Canada balked at a similar deal and struck Nov. 5.
Layoffs in US parts plants supplying Canadian operations quickly put more than 6,000 out of work and, because of the close relationship of US and Canadian production, a complete Chrysler shutdown appeared possible. And UAW negotiators in the US had to change their wait-until-1983 strategy.