Lupini said his members were "thrilled, very thrilled" to learn of the ruling.
USX Corp., formerly U.S. Steel, the largest steelmaker in the United States, idled 44,000 workers in 16 plants across the country Aug. 1, when union contracts expired.
The company, which was asking for wage and benefit concessions amounting to $3.37 an hour, called it a strike.
But Knepper ruled yesterday that it was a lockout because the workers, whose wages ranged from $10 to $14 an hour, had offered to return to work under provisions of the old contract. USX representatives admitted during a hearing earlier this week that they were unwilling to allow that, Knepper said.
"This decision, combined with an identical one in Minnesota, establishes clearly that USX is engaged in a lockout. It also affirms our position that the union made a good faith offer to extend our contract with USX and continue negotiating," said James McGeehan, the union's chief negotiator.
A maximum of $228 a week for 26 weeks in unemployment compensation benefits will now be available to an estimated 6,200 USW members across the state. The
average unemployment benefit in the steel industry is $192 a week.
A spokesman for Knepper said 4,000 Pennsylvania steelworkers had already
applied for benefits and the applications would be processed immediately.
In a separate decision, the U.S. Agriculture Department said idled USX workers across the country are also eligible for food stamps.
At a union meeting last night in Fallsington, Bucks County, steel workers were jubilant over the decisions.
"We're glad that we won this round," said Lew Dopson, a 21-year veteran at Fairless, "but this is liable to be a 15-round fight. This will take some of the pain out of it."
Some workers complained that the firm was giving the union a "bum rap" by insisting that they had struck.
"They think we're strike-happy," said a maintenance man who would not identify himself. But "nobody wants a strike."
The company said it would appeal Knepper's decision. USX spokesman David Higie said he would not comment on speculation that the decision would force the company back to the bargaining table.
There have been no talks since the work stoppage began and none was scheduled as of yesterday.
The state's unemployment compensation fund is financed by taxes on workers and companies. Since the employers' tax is based on a company's history of laying off employees, USX's tax is likely to increase during the next reassessment, within about three years.
"I've got a funny hunch that there will be (negotiations) in a few weeks or a month," Lupini said. "I'm hoping it's next week."
The last work stoppage against U.S. Steel was a 116-day strike in 1959.