Hard bargaining for postal workers, coal and copper miners

New efforts to end the 11-month strike by copper workers against Phelps Dodge are under way while new contract disputes are building up in the coal industry and US Postal Service.

Basically, the confrontations are between unions committed against concessions on wages and benefits and managements that insist labor costs are too high and must be cut. Such an issue must also be faced this summer in the critical auto negotiations where a strike is possible.

The Phelps Dodge negotiations, scheduled to reopen June 8, will be the first since January. The company has withdrawn as too generous for today's falling copper market a contract offer on the table then. It is expected to make stiffer demands for concessions by the United Steel Workers (USW) and 12 other unions.

There are now rumblings about ''a lost strike'' among discouraged workers, although the USW and other unions in Clifton, Ariz., say that the fight is far from over.

Bargaining in the Postal Service and coal industry opened amicably a month ago but there are now questions of how long the initial good will can last.

Postal and mine workers, whose unions are now at bargaining tables, are determined to resist contract concessions. But they do not appear to be militant about negotiating another round of large settlements this summer.

Unions representing more than 500,000 employees of the US Postal Service, and the United Mine Workers (UMW), bargaining for 160,000 coal miners, are negotiating with management in hotels in Washington. There has been little if any progress in the two major bargaining situations.

There is no urgency, yet. Postal contracts do not expire until July 30. And because employees of the Postal Service are, by law, federal workers, they cannot legally strike. Coalfield contracts run to Sept. 30.

Two major mail workers unions, however, rejected on May 29 the first Postal Service contract proposals, calling them ''totally unacceptable'' and ''an insult to all postal workers who have labored so hard and so efficiently to make the world's best postal service even better.''

Management proposals centered on a wage freeze for present employees of the Postal Service. The agency told unions that it is under heavy pressure to cut operating costs, largely through adjusting Postal Service pay to levels that would compare more favorably with those in the private sector.

In rejecting the initial proposal, Moe Biller, president of the American Postal Workers union, and Vincent Sonbrotto, head of the National Association of Letter Carriers, reiterated the unions' pledge to resist contract concessions in 1984 bargaining. In a joint statement, they called the Postal Service offer ''nonsense'' and other parts of the offer ''garbage'' dumped on the negotiating tables.

In past bargaining, some major mail union locals have ignored federal strike prohibition and walked out to protest ''unacceptable'' offers. This would happen again this year if more serious contract talks nearer a settlement deadline failed to produce an agreement. There is no real show of militancy so far, however.

If there is a strike, the Postal Service has promised that mail handling will not be interrupted; it will do, it says, ''whatever must be done'' to handle mail.

At the start of coal negotiation, Bob R. Brown, chief negotiator for the industry, warned of ''some harsh realities'' in coalfields - depressed prices, high coal inventories, closed mines and curtailed production, and thousands of miners laid off. He warned that any contract gains this year will have to be paid for through increased productivity.

The UMW's new president, 34-year-old Richard L. Trumka, conducting his first national negotiation, reiterated that the UMW will ''take no backward step'' in a settlement.

''Concessions are out,'' he said. ''Our members will not accept a contract with givebacks.''

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