A national coal miners' strike is a possibility in the United States this year, although the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA), which represents major coal companies, and the United Mine Workers (UMW) "recognize the desirability of avoiding a strike in the mines this year," according to Bobby Brown, the BCOA's chief negotiator.
The industry-UMW three-year contract runs out March 27.
In addition to the possibility of a contract strike, the UMW has scheduled a two-day work stoppage on March 9 and 10 to protest possible reductions in federal contributions to the "essential and hard-won US black lung program". President Reagan has not suggested such reductions, but a government study recently reported that $70 million in black lung benefits are being paid monthly to miners who have not presented "adequate medical evidence of disability."
Although the industry appears to be entering a new period of growth after 30 years of decline, improvements resulting from sharp increases in oil and gas prices have been slower in coming than expected. Because of uncertainties, coal contract bargaining started slowly. After two months, described by participants as "low key," difficult issues remain to be resolved with time now running short.
Negotiators talk of the bargaining as "sober," with an absence of loud and angry exchanges; one said, "Nobody has raised his voice so far."
However, Sam Church, president of the UMW, now has warned the BCOA that the union will quit work if there is no contract agreement by March 27, in keeping with the UMW's long-held "no contract, no work" policy.Several months ago, Mr, Church said that the union might consider an extension if progress is being made at contract expiration time.
The UMW is seeking an "escalotor" contract that would keep wages in line with rising costs over a three-year term. Pay increases under the present contract, signed after an 111-day strike in 1977-78, averaged 15.5 percent or $2.40 an hour, raising pay to about $10.50 an hour.
Church contends that "inadequate" wage adjustments over the past three years have left miners lagging far behind inflated costs. The UMW and Western mine operators -- who bargain separately -- recently signed new contracts which gave workers a 37 percent wage increase over three years. eastern mine union negotiators say "this would not be acceptable to us as a settlement."
While the wage issue will be difficult, a fight that is brewing on changes in the industry pension plan could be more critical. The UMW accuses operators of trying to "dismantle" the national pension fund in a way that would reinforce the plans of large employers --
A union source said recently that even if the UMW agreed to the operators' proposal, "the miners will never buy it. Too many work in t he smaller mines."