Has the steel industry found a way to address American labor's second thoughts about the trend to wage concessions in recent years? Last year the United Steelworkers rejected an 18 percent cut in hourly wages ranging from about nine to fourteen dollars. Now their leaders are accepting a nine percent temporary cut along with other concessions in exchange for such management pledges as fixing up aging plants and helping laid-off workers.
The new agreement has been reached under a deadline imposed by steel buyers threatening to look to other countries unless assured against a strike interrupting supply later this year. That such a threat can be made indicates the underlying problem of American basic industries facing competition from more modern plants elsewhere. With about 50 percent unemployment in their industry, steelworkers are impelled to follow auto workers who led the trend toward union concessions to save jobs back in 1979.
Employees in various industries - rubber, meat packing, printing, trucking - have been part of what has been called the new cooperation rather than confrontation in labor relations. With or without economic pressures, the attitude of mutual problem-solving instead of adversarial self-seeking is valuable and to be encouraged. It has borne fruit in joint management-employee programs for better quality both in production and in working conditions.
But, with unemployment remaining high and economic recovery seen as on the way, labor has been questioning whether its concessions have paid off; whether it has simply been providing a cushion for management's mistakes in letting industries slide; whether labor would be better off with a return to more confrontational negotiations. Such questions seemed reflected in the steelworkers' resistance to the higher wage givebacks proposed last year. Perhaps the present package is a realistic measure of what can be done in mutuality to help a high-priced US industry compete.
Eventually, the ability to compete will depend not only on wage agreements but on bringing US industry up to date, stressing higher technology while relinquishing more of the routine mass production in basic industries to countries with cheaper labor. When it comes to steel this could mean specialty products. Note that Japan has already gone through a major phase of production in steel and other basic industries - and is now reducing its capacities in these while moving strikingly ahead in more specialized manufacture.
Note, too, the recently announced joint enterprises seeking to bring together American and Japanese strengths in labor and management. Not to make too great a leap of imagination, do not these times of dramatic economic change also require the spirit of joint enterprise within countries, within companies, within every shop and office where cooperation need not mean loss for anyone?