Labor, owners join to help coal grow

The hills of West Virginia are not yet alive with the all-out digging and hauling of coal. There are, thankfully, few boom towns. The most noticeable phenomenon, in fact, is the uncommon peace that has settled into Appalachian coal country during the past 24 months.

For the miners, operators, and others who depend on coal money, the peace has come either because of slack demand or because of new square dealing between labor and management. Many industry observers predict that miners and mine owners have entered a historic period of cooperation to secure their stake in the nation's energy future.

The spell of quiet in the often-bitter relationship between the United Mine Workers (UMW) and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association has, with the exception of scattered wildcat walkouts, grown steadily since the wrenching general strike of 1977. The durability of the peace -- one viewed as essential if the country's vast coal resources are to offer some relief from foreign oil imports -- will be tested in the fall, when contract talks open.

Already there are encouraging signs that the UMW and the coal operators association are prepared to work out their differences well before the March 27, 1981, deadline. There appear to be three main reasons for this:

* Labor-management professionalism. Union members who were young during the last strike have become more seasoned. Led by president Sam Church Jr., UMW leaders seem more inclined to deal as "informed adversaries" with the operators. Management personnel have been trained to handle union complaints routinely, and a new grievance procedure is being worked out.

* Current economic conditions. The inventory of unused coal is estimated at between 100 million and 150 million tons. As many as 20,000 miners are reported out of work nationwide -- most of them union members. A slump in the steel industry, as well as a general recession, could increase this surplus.

* Growth in other coal areas. Most of the new coal sites in the western states and a number of those in Appalachia are nonunion. One estimate puts the number of nonunion mines at 50 percent. The UMW has launched a recruiting drive , but has yet to make substantial inroads in the Western mining states.

The impending coal boom seems to have given both labor and management a common goal. A federal order to convert the country's power plants to coal, coupled with an ambitious synthetic fuels program that aims to produce 500,000 barrels of synfuel by 1987, means coal areas should experience steady growth in the 1980s.

US Department of Energy fossil energy chief George Fumich Jr. says the synthetic fuel industry will stimulate demand for as many as 200 million additional tons of domestic coal a year by 1990 and perhaps 300 million tons a year by the end of the century. Current annual production is 800 million tons. Construction, operation, and maintenance of synfuel plants could employ 160,000 workers by 1990, he says.

Labor and management have joined sides -- even testifying together before congressional committees -- to prepare the way for these coal-utilization programs. Some observers caution that the peace is tenuous and that problems could develop when production revs up and the nation begins to rely more on coal.

"On the other side of the recession, we could see problems," says Neil Palomba, chairman of the University of West Virginia Department of Economics in Morgantown. "But the picture in the long term looks bright."

The change to come in the economic and social pattern of areas like rural West Virginia is causing many to urge that the current lull be used for preparation. This may entail, for instance, decisions by the West Virginia Legislature on how to tax coal and property in order to produce revenue to upgrade roads, public works, and schools. Many new workers would come from out of state.

"I think you're going to see a state like West Virginia move slowly from the low-income end of the picture to a higher income," Mr. Palomba says. "But the move is not going to happen overnight. And, in a sense, that is good news, because it will give us time to plan."

Neither Mr. Palomba nor Bill Miernyk, director of the university's Regional Research Institute, think the unique Appalachian hill culture will be lost during economic transition in the 1980s.

"This is a state that is tremendously rural," says Mr. Miernyk. "I'm always amazed, flying over the state, at the huge expanses of unpopulated areas. I think West Virginia could easily accommodate another 1 million people and not bulge at the seams."

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