UMW, postal workers begin hard bargaining with employers

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Polite formalities are over and hard bargaining is under way between labor and management in the coal industry and at the US Postal Service. The unions involved oppose concessions on wages and benefits. And in each case, management insists that labor costs are too high and must be cut.

Negotiations opened amicably on Tuesday, but the growing union militancy of 1984 raises questions of how long the initial goodwill can last.

Most employers hope to continue a pattern of unprecedented concessions by labor set during the recession. Unions vow that for most employers the pattern of givebacks must be put aside in 1984; workers are in no mood now for backward steps in settlements.

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This was particularly noted in the start of coal bargaining in Washington, where both sides hope to avert a third costly industry-wide strike in six years.

Miners shut down a large part of the nation's coal production for 111 days in 1978-79 and, in the next bargaining round in 1981, for 72 days, each time leaving the industry more disorganized and the UMW weaker internally.

In an amiable start of 1984 talks, Bobby R. Brown, chairman of the Consolidation Coal Company and head of the industry negotiating committee, and UMW president Richard Trumka expressed hopes - and outward confidence - that a new contract can be signed before a contract-or-strike deadline Sept. 30.

Meanwhile, also in Washington, the US Postal Service and negotiators for unions representing about 600,000 workers began bargaining Tuesday on four new contracts to replace agreements that run out in mid-July. Postal union leaders said they will insist on contract gains. Moe Biller, head of the American Postal Workers Union, said that after two years of budget surpluses, the Postal Service can afford to be generous. He added, ''There is no reason for givebacks in an industry that is doing well.'' Other union representatives joined him in insisting there will be no concessions this year.

Postmaster General William F. Bolger has said that postal employees are ''over compensated'' and the Postal Service's board of governors who met in Memphis, Tenn., April 3, called on their contract negotiators to ''seek correction of this situation.''

Postal bargaining will affect more workers than any negotiations this year except those between the United Automobile Workers and General Motors and Ford, negotiations scheduled to begin in mid-July. The UAW already has served notice that it will demand guaranteed wage increases over the next three years, a richer profit-sharing plan, increased job security, and a shorter workweek.

The United Mine Workers has not yet laid out its demands for new coal contracts, but Mr. Trumka has pledged to the union's members that there will be no wage, benefits, or work-rules concessions.

The UMW's national agreement covers about 160,000 miners in traditional coal fields, including 50,000 who are unemployed. In the past 30 years the union's representation has declined from 90 percent to about 40 percent of miners as nonunion mining has spread in strip mining operations and in many coal fields. Basically, the UMW is still considered a strong union, but its membership - and more important its lower-level leadership - has lost much of its past cohesiveness.

Still, the UMW says it will have more leverage this year while the industry is concerned about the impact of defections from the Bituminous Coal Operators Association . Its membership is down substantially from its original 100. Many operators were unhappy about the last coal settlement, blaming BCOA for giving too much to the union. Many major firms may try this year to win less costly contracts outside industry-wide bargaining.

If the industry-wide bargaining pattern shows signs of coming apart, the UMW could, operators fear, revert to ''target'' bargaining to win contracts that could be forced on others in the industry. With that in mind, the BCOA has hinted at a lockout of union miners at all association mines and possible financial aid if UMW strikes one mining company or a group of mines considered vulnerable to union demands and pressures.

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