The United Steelworkers today voted down local leadership candidates who campaigned for withdrawal of the Canadian unit from the Pittsburgh-based international union.

The outcome of the tough and bitter campaign was a clear victory for United Steelworkers international president Lyn Williams, a Canadian who had come up from Pittsburgh several times to make sure his flock did not stray as Canadian auto workers did last year.

It appeared to be something of a setback for the ambitions of Canadian United Auto Workers leader Bob White, a national folk hero since he broke away from his international organization last December.

White had been publicly neutral in the steelworkers' election, although he did say in interviews that he thought it was inevitable that other unions would follow the auto workers' lead.

But some steelworker candidates favoring autonomy had used his photograph in their campaign literature and White did not discourage widespread speculation here that one of his goals is to build a mega-union that would include auto workers, machinists and steelworkers, that would become a major political force.

The efforts of Williams and the pride Canadian steelworkers take in seeing one of their own in the top union position appeared to have thwarted the secessionists' call.

Williams stressed that the steelworkers had allowed its Canadian members considerable autonomy in bargaining on contracts.

Pressure by the Detroit auto workers leadership to dictate the pattern of the Canadian UAW contract caused the split in that union.

An inside look at the machinations surrounding the negotiations with General Motors last year and the beginnings of the conflict between White and UAW international president Owen Bieber was shown in an unusual documentary, "Final Offer," broadcast here last night on the eve of the steelworkers' election.

White, who had permitted a Canadian Film Board crew broad access during the negotiations, came across as tough, shrewd and agile as he maneuvered against GM, his union's international leadership and dissidents among auto workers in Canada.

Both White and Williams were featured in live discussions after the documentary. Politely they disagreed on whether Canadian unions should be separate from their American parents, with White saying of the auto workers' secession, "We weren't the first and we won't be the last."

"If you were going to make a case for a national union, the case is stronger for steelworkers than auto workers," said John Crispo, professor of industrial relations at the University of Toronto.

Reflecting on the decision made by the two unions, he sighed, "I guess that's just another sign of the perversity of the Canadian species."

Crispo's point was that while the auto industry is completely integrated in North America and workers on both sides of the border must face the same Big Three auto manufacturers at the bargaining table, Canadian steel companies are largely locally owned.

While Canadian steelworkers resisted appeals for secession today, both winners and losers in the vote made it clear beforehand that there is no yearning for any closer relationship with the United States.

On the matter of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's initiative for liberalizing trade with the United States, the Canadian steelworkers' leadership is in solidarity with White and his auto workers in being strongly opposed. They argue that it will cost Canada many jobs.