The United Steelworkers of America tentatively agreed yesterday to a give-back contract that struggling steel makers said is urgently needed to halt further hemorrhaging of their business to foreign competitors.
"I'm not overjoyed," chief union negotiator Joseph Odorcich said in announcing the agreement hours before expiration of an informal midnight deadline.
The proposal was presented for ratification to the union's local presidents, who had rejected a more severe give-back proposal recommended by their leadership last November and an even harsher one not pushed by the leadership last summer. Odorcich said the new contract is an improvement over the November deal.
During two hours of discussions in Pittsburgh by about 600 local presidents representing mills in the United States and Canada, there was only one negative reaction expressed, according to union spokesman Russell Gibbons.
"The sentiment is, we think this time it's going to go," he said. A vote on the contract is scheduled this morning.
The proposed 41-month settlement calls for a temporary cut of about $1.25 an hour in workers' pay, to be restored in three annual increments beginning Feb. 1, 1985, sources said.
Workers also would be asked to give up one week of vacation and one holiday each year.
On the most divisive issue, the union preserved the principle of the cost-of-living allowance, but some payments reportedly would be cut under the agreement.
The industry would agree to apply money saved under the contract to capital improvements at antiquated plants and, in the pact's language, "to preserve the working capital needs of such plants," a point considered vital by union officials. The industry would also contribute to a fund for paying unemployed steelworkers' supplemental benefits.
The current three-year contract does not expire until Aug. 1, but both sides had pushed to reach agreement by today because of pressure from top customers.
The new agreement would date from today.
General Motors Corp. Chairman Roger Smith, among others, had told Steelworkers President Lloyd McBride that GM must place steel orders for 1984 car models this month and might buy foreign-made steel if the domestic industry faced a strike threat.
The last steelworkers strike, in 1959, lasted 116 days.
Nearly 60 percent of the steel industry work force of 266,000 is laid off, losses of $3.3 billion were recorded last year and production is at the lowest level since the Depression.
The industry claims to have the highest labor costs in the world, with wages and fringe benefits totaling more than $26 per hour.
The average mill hand makes about $13.70 an hour in wages, according to the union.
The anti-concession mood among the rank and file springs from a mistrust of management and a growing belief that accepting less will not necessarily save their jobs.
The workers were determined to win guarantees in return.
In order to head off another bargaining failure, union leaders had made a special effort in this round to work more closely with local officials in determining what type of proposal would be acceptable.
The new agreement would cover about 265,000 workers at the seven major steel makers that bargain as a unit. They also set the pattern for another 100,000 workers at 200 smaller companies.
Odorcich replaced McBride in the negotiations after the Steelworkers president was hospitalized with heart trouble.
The latest round began Feb. 15, with J. Bruce Johnston, vice president of U.S. Steel Corp., leading bargaining for the industry.
The union's 29-member executive board approved the proposal without dissent yesterday before sending it to the Basic Steel Industry Conference, the local presidents' group, for a ratification vote.
Thermon Phillips, a union official from Birmingham, said after the tentative agreement was revealed, "I think they the industry realized if they wanted to get what help they could, they had to be a little more moderate than they were before."