James T. Housewright, 55, president of the Retail Clerks International Union, died of cancer Monday at Circle Terrace Hospital in Alexandria.

Elected president of the 700,000-member union at the age of 46, he was one of the youngest leaders of a major trade union. He was a member of the executive council of the AFL-CIO, and president of its recently created food and beverage trades department.

Members of the Retail Clerks International are mostly in the food and beverage industry.

All the time of his death, Mr. Housewright was negotiating for one of the biggest mergers in labor history.

The Boot and Shoe Workers Union, with 30,000 members, had merged earlier this month. He was negotiating a possible merger with the 118,000-member Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, the 450,000-member Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America and the 30,000-member United Shoe Workers of America.

Labor spokesmen said his death was not expected to affect the outcome of the negotiations.

AFLCIO President George Meany and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Lane Kirkland issued a joint statement, declaring that Mr. Housewright's death left a "grievous void" in labor's ranks.

William H. Wynn, secretary-treasurer of the Retail Clerks International, noted that the membership of the union more than doubled during Mr. Howerwright's leadership.

Born in Wesco, Mo., Mr. Housewright moved to Indianapolis in 1947, and joined the Retail Clerks Union there, soon becoming secretary-treasurer of Local 725.

In 1953, he left the local to become an international representative of the union. He moved on to become division director in 1954, director of organization, executive assistant to the president and then president in 1968.

Mr. Housewright had been the AFL-CIO representative to the International Labor Organization and the British Trade Union Congress.

He served as a member of the executive committee of the International Federation of Commercial. Clerical and Technical Employees (FIET) and as vice president of FIET's Interamerican Regional OrganizatioN.

Mr. Housewright also had served as vice president of the Union Label and Service Trade Department and executive board member of the Maritime Trades Department and Council for Professional Employees of the AFL-CIO.

He is survived by his wife, Jane, of the home in Arlington; a son, James T. Jr., of Hollywood, Md.; three daughters, Lana Lowthers and Kathryn Lowthers, both of Woodbridge, Va., and Linda Nostheide, of Centreville, Va., and eight grandchildren.