Back to the Coal Mines

THE settlement of the Pittston coal strike, pending a vote by the rank and file, brings a sigh of relief. The nine-month strike by some 1,700 miners in Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky was one of the bitterest in recent years. The pact ends a period of fear and deprivation for Appalachian families whose lives are hard enough in the best of times, and it may foster greater cooperation between management and miners in the coal fields.

There are some hopeful aspects to the way in which the strike was resolved, as well. Ever since President Reagan broke the airline traffic controllers' union in 1981, after the controllers' unlawful walkout, the Republican administrations of Mr. Reagan and George Bush have seemed at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the concerns of organized labor. (Mr. Bush's refusal to intercede in the Eastern Airlines strike is viewed by some as proof that he shares Reagan's outlook.) Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole's decision in October to enter the Pittston fray and appoint a mediator might signal a softening in the White House's lockout of unions.

The skillful efforts of federal go-between W.J. Usery Jr. to cool tempers and bring the two sides together is a triumph for mediation. And if the parties did in fact end up in what Mr. Usery called a ``win-win situation'' (the precise terms of the pact are not fully known yet), the settlement proves again that collective bargaining doesn't have to be a zero-sum game, in which every victory for one side is a defeat for the other.

Inasmuch as the miners never broke ranks, and, indeed, turned their strike into a kind of people's crusade involving social activists outside labor, some sympathizers see the outcome as starting to reverse unions' long decline. Actually, the strike probably has little significance beyond its own circumstances. Other unions, in other industries and parts of the country, operate under vastly differing competitive conditions.

Wise labor leaders are busily adjusting to new technological and global circumstances, rather than trying to relive the days of fighting Joe Hill.

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