For so long the steel industry has been the backbone of the American economy that is hard to adjust to the current cries for help coming from both the companies and the union. Leaders in the industry report huge losses and 60,000 workers laid off.

They charge that steel imports from Europe and Japan are sold at below cost, subsidized by government, and that that is "dumping." They want a remedy, and quick.

The Iron and Steel Institute, the industry's central powerhouse, says that columns I have written on the subject are unfair because they accuse the industry of failing to modernize. This failure is in contrast to Japanese steelmakers who have put up to 40 per cent of their production into the oxygen process as against the long-outmoded open-hearth method.

I based this on a study by the brokerage firm of Merrill Lynch, which found Japan in the lead in efficiency and cost. The institute writes it has refuted this study and and that furthermore it thinks it has proved conclusively that foreign nations are dumping steel in this country.

Since this controversy, the whole picture has been changed by President Carter's rescue operation for the steeil industry. Part of his proposal was for a trigger price, with imported steel coming in under that price subject ot penalties for dumping. The industry is waiting to see how high the trigger price will be. If it is close to the $360 a ton that American steel brings, they will be happy, confident this will keep out most of the 20 per cent of imports estimated for 1978.

President Carter deserves respectable marks, in my opninio, for resisting the demands for protectionism and quotas. The old tub-thumper George Meany, at the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles, kept up the demand for barriers that would wall off American industry and American workers from foreign competition. This conveniently ignores the fact that protectionism would bring immediate reprisals and the $8 billion the United States sells abroad would be jeopardized.

The Carter proposal also calls for government-guaranteed loans to enable the industry to modernize, and tax breaks to cushion the cost of environmental and other special charges. The package as prepared by the Treasury is package as prepared by the Treasury is intended to raise steel earnings by $900 million a year and put up to half the laid-off workers back in jobs.

The reaction of industry and the United Steel Workers Union was on the whole a cautious "let's see." The trigger price will not be announced until some time in January. David M. Roderick, president of United States Steel, said: "If the trigger prices are unrealistic, the program would not constitue a useful substitute for the prosecution of dumping cases by individual companies."

His company has brought several such case against Japanese exporters in the Customs Court. Roderick also was skeptical about the guaranteed-loan aspects of the Carter plan. Loans from such agencies as the Economic Development Administration "would be a step toward ultimate nationalization or, at is minimum, place the federal government in a position of controlling a segment of the market."

This get close to the dilemma of steel in the world market. Virtually every country in Western Europe, with the possible exception of West Germany, is hurting badly because of the downturn in steel. Since most of the European steel companies are government-owned, the taxpayer is making up the deficit.

Not merely the well-being of a segment of private industry, as in this country, but also the health of national exchequers, is involved. The meanms national rivalry that could become national hostility. With world finances in a state of near chaos, it means an added threat to the hope for stability.

In Japan, industry and the government are like Siamese twins. It is hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. The Japanese are saying they feel no obligation to bring down arbitrarily their own big trade surplus, and they talk of the danger of a serious depression. According to American industrialists, they have cut back on their exports to Europe and compensated by increasing their exports to this country.

The remedy for all this is so obvious. It is to get on with a new General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The effort to create another GATT has been stalled. If it is not soon off dead center with a sense of real urgency, we are likely to see in the new year the beginning of a dire protectionism that can spell, as it did in 1930, a worldwide depression.