The Jones & Laughlin Steel Company's Aliquippa plant here stretches for seven long miles along the Ohio River. Its monumental size is accentuated by its idle state: multistory mills house rows of empty caldrons, each with the capacity to hold enough molten steel to start a car dealership. Mill floors are dusty with steel shavings and littered with giant tools like hooks and chains with links thicker than the girth of a burly steelworker.
While the twin powers of labor and management struggle from their corporate nests with approaches to contracts and foreign competition, out here where the red glow of hot steel translates directly into food on the table for thousands of workers, labor and management are abandoning their traditional adversarial roles.
Chuck Hagan works at the Aliquippa plant once a week, even though he has been laid off his shop floor job for more than a year. As a member of a Labor Management Participation Team (LMPT), he works with employees trying to increase plant productivity.
With nearly 5,000 of J&L's 8,000 local job force on layoff - increasing productivity at the idle plant would appear to be a moot point. Mr. Hagan agrees , but explains why he still takes time out from developing his own cabinetry business to help his LMPT: ''We're just trying to save money right now and make things more efficient. Ultimately that may mean more jobs.''
Some of the LMPT accomplishments at J&L's Aliquippa plant include:
* An estimated $14,000 a year was saved when an extra $2.98 monthly investment in computer cards was made. The computer operating mill equipment normally ran until it broke down. By replacing the cards before they wore out, the computer no longer stops.
* Large amounts of time and money were saved when LMPT members designed a device that would allow mill workers to rotate a coal deflector pipe with the simple twist of a nut. Previously, because the giant pipe was in a fixed position protruding into hot coke ovens, it burned on one side and had to be replaced frequently.
* $30,000 in savings was achieved when workers discovered they should replace worn-out dust covers for parts of a large machine.
The LMPT concept, an experimental program called for in 1980 union contracts, is an outgrowth of the US steel industry's self-examination prompted by the challenge of foreign steel competition. Though used on a limited basis, it is believed to be influencing change in steel management concepts.
''It involves a whole cultural change,'' explains Sam Camens, a United Steelworkers executive who has helped design the LMPT programs. ''Traditionally (blue-collar workers) are told what to do when and how to do it and not permitted to go beyond it.'' The LMPTs blend blue- and white-collar expertise in 10-man teams that identify plant problems and try to solve them. Most large steel producers have the LMPTs now and report enthusiastic worker response.
''It is a whole new perception (using workers as consultants) and promotes the idea that working smarter not harder'' is a better way to look at productivity, explains Ben Fischer, director of the Center for Labor Studies at Carnegie Mellon University.
''People here understand that the steel industry is controlled by the market . . . but with world competition the way it is, we think we can pitch in and (influence) total plant security so that it will be a viable operation,'' says Terry Bush, an LMPT member from the J&L management ranks.