Seeking to shore up strength amid the declining fortunes of organized labor, the governing board of the United Rubber Workers union has approved a proposal to merge with the United Steelworkers of America.
The merger agreement, reached late Thursday after several months of talks, is to be voted on by the board of the Steelworkers' union Monday. It would then be subject to a vote at a convention of United Rubber Workers members, a meeting expected within two months.
If the agreement clears those hurdles, the merger will significantly increase the membership of the Steelworkers' union, which since the mid-1970s has been in fairly steady decline.
From a peak of around 1 million, the membership has shrunk to 565,000, the product of a sharp contraction in steelmaking capacity in the 1980s and the rise of nonunion mills.
But membership has stabilized a bit in recent years, as the industry has reaped some benefits from its own restructuring, a revival in demand for automobiles, and the weak dollar, which has lifted exports.
"Things looked almost hopeless in the early and mid-1980s," said Harry C. Katz, a professor of industrial relations at Cornell University. "But now they are at least holding their own."
The Rubber Workers, a union that also has been having problems, has about 94,000 members. At its peak in 1960, the union had close to 200,000 members.
The union was severely weakened by a 10-month strike at Bridgestone/ Firestone Inc. that depleted its strike fund; earlier this year, the union imposed a dues increase. The union said this week that it would unconditionally return to work.
Failure to reach an agreement at Bridgestone/Firestone has been seen as a big defeat for the Rubber Workers, which has 232 contracts covering 43,000 workers up for renewal this year and next.
Analysts said that by merging with the Steelworkers, with its strike fund of more than $160 million, the United Rubber Workers seeks to bolster its negotiating strength.
"The tire industry still seems to have a good bit of excess capacity, and hasn't experienced the recovery that the steel industry has," Mr. Katz said. "Both unions are trying to gain strength through numbers."
Kurt Brown, a spokesman for the Rubber Workers, said talks about a merger began last winter, as an outgrowth of support for the Rubber Workers in the Bridgestone strike.
In addition to its merger discussions with the Rubber Workers, the Steelworkers' union is seeking to merge with an independent union representing workers at AK Steel Holding Corp.'s mill in Middletown, Ohio. That union has 3,300 members. Last week, its board voted to merge with the Steelworkers. The merger still requires the approval of the union's members.