Pace of auto, coal, postal bargaining picks up as deadlines near

Labor negotiations covering more than 1 million workers are being stepped up as deadlines approach for strikes that could cause major disruptions in the auto and coal industries.

Bargaining is heating up this week. For example:

* The United Auto Workers (UAW) and General Motors (GM) accelerated contract talks in Detroit in final-week efforts to resolve wide differences and avert what could be a long and costly walkout by more than 300,000 workers.

* Negotiators for the United Mine Workers (UMW) and Bituminous Coal Operators Association, who broke off contract talks Aug. 21, remained far apart on key issues, with a strike deadline now only weeks away.

* Meanwhile, unions representing more than 500,000 workers are resuming negotiations with the US Postal Service in new efforts to ''narrow and focus the issues'' in their six-week bargaining impasse. The talks appear to be taking place less in hopes of a settlement than as a preparation for eventual federal arbitration. Postal Service walkouts are barred by law.

The auto bargaining was intensified after weekend contract talks by 17 subcommittees on principal issues dividing the parties. Donald Ephlin, the UAW's chief negotiator in the GM talks, said afterward: ''My optimism has dimmed a little - not a great deal, but a little bit.

''Both sides have agreed that negotiations have to pick up steam if a strike is to be averted,'' he added. ''I'm anxious to get things moving at a faster pace so that we won't be too pushed for time come Friday night.''

Whether or not there can be a settlement before the Friday midnight deadline will depend largely on UAW's reaction to a new job-security proposal made by GM yesterday. The union's No. 1 issue is a demand to keep the production of automobiles and trucks in the United States and out of nonunion plants. GM and Ford have angered UAW negotiators by insisting that management must have flexibility in scheduling production, in order to remain competitive with lower-cost foreign automakers.

Auto negotiations have had a long history of going down to the final days before a strike deadline and then, sometimes in the frantic final hours before midnight, agreeing on a contract.

This year, once again, about two months of bargaining with little apparent progress can be expected to climax either in a strike or a settlement in five days of intense negotiations - negotiations that could be critical to automakers' and UAW's future.

Talks in the coal industry have largely been without public skirmishes. The UMW is also demanding more job security (33 percent of all coal miners are idle today) and opposing concessions on wages and work conditions. Employers insist they must have cost savings to keep 20 percent of their mines from becoming economically unviable.

The UMW membership is militant, and the union's new president, Richard Trumka , could have a difficult time reaching a satisfactory settlement before a deadline of Sept. 30.

Postal unions and the US Postal Service agreed Sept. 5 to dispense with fact-finding (part of the government's dispute-settlement procedure for federal employees) and to resume negotiations this week. They hope to clarify, if not resolve, contract differences over a management demand for a three-year wage freeze and a lower wage for newly hired workers.

The prospect now is for these issues to be settled through binding arbitration beginning in October, with a December deadline. Postal contracts expired July 21, but by federal law, strikes that would interfere with the mail are prohibited.

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