The Reagan administration's hopes of staying out of major labor disputes could be put to a test in deadlocked coal bargaining that appears certain to shut down union mines nationally when contracts run out March 27.
Hours after contract talks broke off March 17, unauthorized walkouts began spreading through coalfields in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. By midweek, more than 4,000 miners had left the mines, shutting down 15 operations, and the wildcat actions were spreading.
Sam Church JR., president of the United Mine Workers (UMW), urged the rank and file to remain on the job as long as contracts remain in effect. But, showing the effects of intensive bargaining, he said "a national strike is now inevitable."
Such a strike would involve 160,000 miners in Eastern and Midwestern coalfields and would shut off production of more than 50 percent of the coal tonnage dug in the United States. Three years ago, a UMW walkout lasted 11 days and ended only after government intervention.
The government is not likely to become involved quickly -- if at all - in the current impasse. Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan said in Washington March 16 that the administration believes collective bargaining works best without government intervention.
Secretary Donovan was referring particularly to efforts to hold down wage settlements to fight inflation, but the hopes of limiting the government role in bargaining also apply to "jawboning" and other pressures in negotiating deadlocks and strikes.
Unauthorized strikes and the probable national walkout March 27 would not have the kind of impact that would raise the question of government intervention for a month or more. Coal inventories for public utilities and major industries powered by coal are reported to be sufficient for 16 weeks.
Although there is a week for further bargaining before the present contract runs out, miners do not work without a signed contract -- under a traditional "no contract, no work" policy -- and membership contract ratification procedures take a minimum of 10 days. Even a quick settlement this week would mean a walkout lasting into early April.
No quick settlement is expected. The remaining contract issues are complex and basic for both parties.
When talks broke off, Mr. Church sent UMW's 39-member bargaining counsel back to their home locals to prepare for a national strike. A three-man bargaining committee from the employers' Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA) also was reported to have left Washington "for a rest."
Church, negotiating his first contract as president of the union, charged the industry with not bargaining "responsibly" on UMW demands. R. R. Brown, president of the Consolidation Coal Company and chief negotiator for the BCOA, deplored the breakdown of talks and said the group is "ready to negotiate anytime the UMW indicates it is prepared to seriously discuss the key issues."
To the employers, the "key issues" are complex contract changes that would be economically important to the industry. One change would allow companies to operate mines on Sundays, paying double-time wages, to make more efficient and productive use of expensive coal-digging machinery. Union bargaining committee members say miners would never approve a contract calling for Sunday work in "Bible belt" coalfields.
Another change sought by employers woudl detach pensions from the UMW health and retirement fund that is operated jointly by the union and industry; pensions would be paid on a company-by-company basis under the industry proposal in a move to reinforce the financial structure of the joint fund. For its part, the union says it must win substancial wage and benefit increases and a cost-of-living formula that wo uld keep pay closer in line with rising prices.