Steelworkers' new leader faces disunity, fewer jobs

Canadian newspapers have described him as ''big labor's quiet superman.'' Lynn Williams, the newly elected president of the United Steel Workers (USW), has long been recognized as one of the most influential union leaders in Canada and as a hard-working, articulate administrator.

But the problems he faces now could be serious, even for a superman.

The industry's sharp decline in recent years has forced tens of thousands of steelworkers out of jobs - and off USW rolls. Many jobless steelworkers may never return to mills. Mergers now in the talking stage could reduce the steel industry to no more than three or four large companies, out of seven now, further cutting into steel employment.

Even without mergers, which could run afoul of federal antitrust laws, plants are being phased out across the country, with new losses of jobs, and economic disruptions in steel towns. For example:

* In Ambridge, Pa., the American Bridge Company, a United States Steel Corporation division, is shutting down a plant built in 1903 that was once touted as ''the largest structural steel fabricating plant in the world.''

Once the employer of 4,500 steelworkers, it recently has had only a skeleton production staff. US Steel says the plant's closing is a result of high labor costs and too much foreign competition. Andy Sepko, president of the USW local in Ambridge, says bad management was the reason and says that what ''used to be a booming steel town now is going to be a ghost town.''

* In Johnstown, Pa., US Steel has announced that it will shut down another 101-year-old plant by late May, following a refusal by workers to grant wage and other concessions. Local union officers said the effects would have cost members about $10,000 a year, $7,000 of it in direct wages. About 350 jobs were lost - though the plant used to employ 1,400 in the '60s and '70s.

US Steel announced several months ago that it had plans to shut down 12 facilities this year, eliminating 15,430 jobs, unless unionized workers agreed to substantial concessions. A ray of hope was the announcement that a huge Fairfield, Ala., facility, closed for 18 months, would soon reopen; even so, the mill that employed 11,000 in 1980 will now have jobs for only 3,500.

The squeeze on USW jobs has severely weakened union solidarity. When Johnstown steelworkers voted on concessions, the vote was 286 for rejection, but 234 for givebacks that would save jobs. In part, the fight was between younger unionists who wanted to salvage job and older workers who opposed concessions and, if laid off, would be eligible for pensions.

Mr. Williams's job now is to reestablish unity in the union among its top leadership and among rank-and-file steel unionists.

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