Steelworker vote may key on candidate's nationality

The United Steel Workers will elect a president Thursday - a decision that could be crucial to the future unity of one of the largest unions in the United States.

At issue is whether the deeply troubled United Steel Workers should be led by a Canadian or by a US citizen.

This has led to a heated campaign between two men - Canadian Lynn Williams, acting president and international secretary, and Frank McKee, international treasurer - who basically agree on many issues.

Industry observers agree that regardless of who fills the unexpired term of Lloyd McBride, who passed on last November, the union will be tougher for the steel industry to deal with. Both candidates oppose further wage and benefit concessions to employers. Both are committed to preserving steel workers' jobs. Both support the concept of a national industrial policy. And both see the need to work with the industry against foreign imports.

Ironically, this last issues is the one fueling the debate over nationality. Mr. McKee has pointed out that Canada was the third largest exporter of steel to the US in 1982, at a cost of US steel workers' jobs. He asked steel workers who will vote in their local union halls whether a president from ''a competitor nation and industry'' can represent the interests of US workers.

The steel union, based in Pittsburgh and in Washington, has suffered serious membership losses during the decline of the steel industry. Its membership is now variously estimated between 850,000 and 1 million.

As an international union, the USW has important locals in the Canadian steel industry. About 20 percent of its members are Canadians. From time to time, Canadian steel unionists, along with others in Canada who belong to unions based in the US, have joined nationalist calls for loosening ties to US institutions - including unions. Despite this, within the USW Canadian and US groups so far have had smooth relations.

Mr. Williams, whose union career began in Toronto in 1947, was named interim president of the steel workers by its executive board in late 1983 after a political skirmish involving several candidates for the office, one of the most important in US labor.

Upon Williams's appointment, Mr. McKee, who has a background of more than 40 years as a mill worker in Seattle, announced immediately that he would run for the presidency. There were other prospective candidates, but the race quickly narrowed to the two men.

Williams is considered to have the advantage. He has administered union affairs tightly and has campaigned as an experienced, smart, and tough leader for ''the new times,'' when the steel union must develop new policies and strategies.

He recently won an endorsement from I. W. Abel, a highly respected retired president of USW. Mr. Abel took McKee to task for raising the Canadian issue at a risk of creating divisiveness in a union that he said is ''badly in need of unity - solidarity - to face its many serious problems.''

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