Leadership battle heats up in test of United Steel Workers unity

The United Steel Workers union, badly battered by deep economic declines in steel, aluminum, nonferrous metals, and can-making industries, now faces serious internal problems likely to cause even more confusion and uncertainty - and probably even more weakness in a rancorous fight for the presidency.

Lloyd McBride, who had led the union since 1977, passed on Nov. 6 with two years remaining in his term. For the second time in four decades, the steel union's executive board failed to unite behind a single candidate to fill an unexpired term. It chose Lynn Williams, a Canadian and the union's secretary, as interim president by a close 16-to-12 vote.

Mr. Williams defeated Joseph Odorcich, a vice-president, who immediately announced that he would be a candidate against Mr. Williams in a rank-and-file special election March 29.

A third candidate emerged Nov. 19 when a mini-convention of dissident steel workers met in Hammond, Ind., and chose Ron Weissen of Homestead, Pa., to be a ''militant'' challenger to ''establishment'' office seekers. Mr. Weissen has served as president of a large United States Steel local union in Homestead since 1976. To enter the race officially, he must have endorsement from 90 locals.

Although dissidents have had strong support in several elections, the two important candidates in the March 29 vote appear to be Mr. Williams who, as incumbent president for four months, could have a strong advantage, and Mr. Odorcich, who negotiated major steel settlements in 1980 and '83 while Mr. McBride was hospitalized.Mr. Odorcich was considered the likely caretaker president before the executive board split in a 31/2-hour agumentative meeting.

Mr. Williams is 59, Mr. Odorcich 67. Under mandatory steel-union retirement rules, the former could run for two four-year terms before retiring, but the latter would have to retire before a general election in 1985. This was a factor in the choice of Mr. Williams to provide more continuity in union leadership.

He is an articulate, college-educated leader who advocates more international labor solidarity (many Canadian unionists had been pulling away from steel unions) and who favors flexibility in working with industry on mutual problems.

Mr. Odorcich, a former coal miner and steel-mill worker, is more rough-hewn and has the support of many lower-level steel leaders and rank-and-file workers. He is candid and politically shrewd. He maneuvered successfully to win worker support for concessions to steel companies in negotiations last spring. In announcing that he will oppose Mr. Williams in March, he said that he will run on his record of ''strong and aggressive action.

''There are issues that have not been discussed. I will raise them,'' he said in Pittsburgh. There are ''enormous internal challenges and problems,'' he added. ''We have and are sitting on assets that I think could be better used for helping our unemployed.''

The fight for the presidency of the union, down in recent years from a million members to about 700,000, could have serious consequences for the union and for steel and other industries. A steel company executive said that union candidates for the presidency ''cannot run on a pro-concessions platform and that could mean that the industry's needs cannot be accomplished whoever is elected.''

Contracts run into 1986 but major companies are seeking cost-savings concessions from the steel union nationally and at local levels.

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