Union hopes to organize more firms in the South suffered a serious setback when the United Steelworkers lost overwhelmingly in a vote that climaxed a seven-year campaign for representation in 14 plants of E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.
The defeat of the steelworkers, a union known for its tenacious and effective organizing, is expected to stiffen the ranks of the region's nonunion employers at a time when the AFL-CIO is embarking on organizing drives in Houston and across the South.
For unions looking southward to offset membership losses in the Northeast and Midwest, the steel union defeat underscored labor's need for a new approach that would appeal to today's better educated, younger workers who tend to be more independent and often question the value of unions.
The representation election, conducted by the National Labor Relations Board over a five-day period, pitted the steelworkers against a company that has been highly successful in avoiding national unions. Of the company's 66,000 eligible workers, only 3,300 are in unions other than long-established independent worker associations or company unions. Labor organizations have won only 13 of 235 elections in Du Pont over 40 years.
The campaign was hard fought and often bitter, with the union charging Du Pont with paternalism in dealing with employees, and the company questioning whether the union, its membership down 14 percent in a decade, ''wants you . . . or your money.'' Du Pont also asked its employees: ''Do empty promises and threats of strikes sound like much of a bargain for your money?''
It was a tough fight all the way for the union, and its defeat, while a disappointment, was not a surprise.
One organizer, John Oshinski, said, ''We gave the workers an opportunity to throw off Du Pont's total control of their working lives. The majority chose to turn down that opportunity. This campaign now has been concluded.''
But it could be revived, perhaps through an AFL-CIO coalition approach against what the steel union describes as ''the Herculean effort that Du Pont made against us.''
Du Pont's victory turned a tide of recent union gains in the South, including a steelworker victory in a three-year effort to unionize 15,000 workers at the Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company in Virginia last spring, and the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Worker gains in a settlement with the J. P. Stevens Company in North Carolina later in the year.
The Newport News victory was hailed as a breakthrough against nonunion employers' resistance to unions in the South, and an opening wedge to further successes. While the Stevens victory gave Amalgamated jurisdiction over only about 10 percent of the company's work force, it also was considered a significant victory over entrenched resistance to unions.
AFL-CIO's attention now is concentrated more in the Southwest, where 14 unions are working together to swell labor roles in Houston, considered a nonunion stronghold. A labor spokesman there said of Du Pont's victory, ''It won't hurt us. We are making gains. We expect to come out on top here.''
Union leaders in Washington expressed a similar confidence that Southern resistance can be overcome.
Everyone concedes it will be harder now; winning Du Pont would have given strong momentum to a campaign that now is expected to move much more slowly and with a much heavier cost in money and manpower.
For the United Steelworkers the defeat was a setback in efforts to extend its membership in the chemical industry. The steel union now represents 54,000 workers in Dow, Allied, Exxon, and other chemical companies. The industry's 900, 000 workers are only about one-third unionized, making chemicals a bright spot for future union growth.