Coal miners' union leader bargains with little clout

Representative for coal miners and coal management have returned to the contract bargaining table, but neither the United Mine Workers nor the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA) appears optimistic about a quick settlement of the strike that is now three weeks old.

The problems confronting the negotiators in Washington go deeper and are much more complex than the usual ones faced after a contract rejection -- a not-uncommon situation since about one tentative labor agreement in 10 is turned down.

Usually, the negotiated terms can be rearranged to give unionists the better deal they want without runing up employer costs substantially. The situation is different for the United Mine Workers (UMW). A simple compromise is difficult because the union lacks a strongly centralized leadership with power to act decisively. Coal peace could be elusive.

When contract talks were resumed early this week, industry negotiators led by B. R. Brown, president of the Consolidation Coal Company, "flatly rejected" demands by the UMW for a "better contract" than the 35 percent settlement turned down by a 2-to-1 margin by the union's 160,000 members.

Further talks were delayed until April 17, when both sides are expected to put revised packages on the table and go on from there, according to Sam M. Church Jr., president of the UMW.

The industry spokesman, Mr. Brown, said later, "I'm still not optimistic." He blamed "the serious lack of bargaining discipline" in the union.

Mr. Church, noting the heavy stockpiles of coal for utilities and other coal customers, said, "I don't think it's within their time frame to settle right away."

The union reintroduced seven major bargaining demands when the parties met April 14. Although these had been resolved in bargaining, UMW negotiators said they had been directed by their members to seek improvements.

One key to a settlement appears to be an agreement by coal operators to continue royalty payments of $1.90 a ton to UMW's health and pension fund on nonunion coal bought for resale (a payment dropped in the March settlement despite Church's promise to members that it never would be given up). Another key issue will be further management agreement to protect job rights of UMW miners when coal properties are leased by unionized mines to nonunion operators, and when construction, maintenance, repair, and trucking jobs are to be filled at union mines.

Job guarantees were dropped from union contracts because court decisions overturned union rules that UMW members must be hired if available.UMW leaders did not tell members about the rulings againsts the union; it considered them "too intricate legally" and a possible basis for wildcat walkouts.

Having won on these issues, it appears unlikely that the BCOA will turn back from the contractual gains in further bargaining.

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