THIS YEAR, for the first time, the leaders of the United Steelworkers union will put the contracts they work out with the steel companies before the members for ratification. Under normal circumstances that might be taken as a sign of health in the union. The more democratic a union's procedures, the better. But the Steelworkers' ratification process was already a pretty representative one; contracts were put to the elected presidents of the union locals for approval. In fact the new procedure is a sign not of health, but of trouble.

There used to be industrywide bargaining in steel. That ends with the contract expiring this year; talks will now be company by company. The reason is that so many of the steel companies are hurting badly. The bargaining is likely to be concessional, but the union wants to give ground to each firm only according to that firm's needs. For protective reasons all around, the leaders then want the members to vote. A leader runs a risk if he makes concessions without consent; that is part of it. But in a time of likely retraction, good leaders also want their members' approval; it is, after all, the members whose livelihood is very much at stake.

There is a long-running and not always pleasant debate about what and who to blame for the plight of the steel industry. Management points to high wages, saying the union priced the industry out of the market. The union points to poor management, above all delay in timely modernization in the past, as well as to the general rigors of competition from abroad and displacement of steel by other products. These questions of cause and blame aside, this is plainly a difficult time. In their decision to let the members be directly heard, the Steelworkers' leaders are stepping up to these difficulties with good sense and no little grace.