Leaders of the United Steelworkers Union said they will consider "trading off" future wage and benefit gains for greater job security, to help the tottering domestic steel industry.
But they say any compromises will not be as extensive as the concessions made by the United Auto Workers union, which has agreed to forego up to $3.5 billion in wages and benefits in return for increased job security at General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co.
"We haven't been doing all that well in steel. But the steel industry is not the auto industry. We don't have the same kinds of problems," said James N. McGeehan, director of USW District 7 and a member of the union's executive board.
But, McGeehan added: "We have always bargained responsibly. . . . It doesn't make good sense for us to try to drive the companies out of business. The companies represent stockholders who have invested a lot of their money. We represent workers who have invested a lot of their lives. Both groups have to be protected in any bargaining."
Local union presidents in District 7, the third largest of the USW's 23 districts in the United States and Canada, met here in the last two days to discuss politics and the growing number of layoffs in domestic steel operations. The union presidents represent 55,000 members in southeastern Pennsylvania and in parts of Delaware, where nearly 8,000 steel workers have been laid off during the current recession.
Nationally, about 150,000 of the 450,000 workers in steel and supporting industries are on layoff.
The union presidents who met here said they have heard the rumors that the steel industry officials are planning a major push to win concessions matching or exceeding those made by the auto workers. But so far there has been no such industry request nor any move for negotiations in advance of scheduled 1983 bargaining, according to McGeehan and other USW officials.
Industry officials, who are extremely reluctant to discuss the steelworkers' contract, agree that there have been no proposals for concessions. But an official of Bethlehem Steel Corp., who asked not to be quoted by name, said last week, "There is a general feeling among industry leaders that there has to be a tempering of labor costs if we are to pull out of our current slump and become more competitive."
The Bethlehem official speculated that the industry might seek a freeze on the current average hourly wage of $12.90 paid to workers in the basic steel industry. The industry may also ask for some sacrifices of vacation time and paid holidays, reflecting the kinds of concessions made earlier this month by workers at nine plants operated by Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp., the nation's eighth-largest steel maker.
"There's an awareness in the industry that what has happened in auto manufacturing has some application to steel," the Bethlehem official said.
Speculation about concessions flared last week following comments of Richard S. Smith, an executive vice president of the Pittsburgh-based National Steel Corp., in a published interview.
"There isn't any doubt that the industry will be seeking concessions from the United Steel Workers Union," he said. Smith, who is not a member of the bargaining committee upset union and company officials.
"Smith does not speak for the steel industry," a ranking USW official said. Said a spokesman for National Steel: "We are declining any comment on that matter. Mr. Smith is not a member of the bargaining committee. He is a staff member of National Steel."
There was no discussion of concessions at an April 6 briefing for union leaders by J. Bruce Johnston, U.S. Steel's vice president for employe relations and the chief negotiator for the industry's eight-member bargaining committee, union officials said.
"It was just an economic presentation where they told us what their problems are, and where we told them about our problems," McGeehan said.
"It wasn't a crisis session or anything like that," said union spokesman Russell Gibbons.
McGeehan said he left the meeting "believing that the steel industry doesn't have a case for concessions." But McGeehan said it is possible that "some tradeoffs" might be appropriate.
McGeehan said it would be impossible, at this point, to say what those "tradeoffs" might involve.