Labor Gains in Pittston Strife

Health, pension are key issues in contract negotiations

THE strike against Pittston Coal Company is all but over. And it is proving to be a symbolic win for the labor movement. Despite tough, antiunion tactics, which have crushed other strikes, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) has emerged with a surprisingly good contract proposal. It maintains health and retirement benefits and contains tough new job-security clauses. In return, the miners gave in on some key work rules.

Miners voted on the contract Monday, but results of that vote were not immediately known. Miners here said they expected the contract would win approval. And outsiders praised the union's ability to hold its own.

``I think the UMWA came out ahead on this,'' says Norman Kilpatrick, director Surface Mining Research Library in Charleston, W. Va.

``There was miraculous solidarity'' on the part of the miners, adds Walter Licht, a labor historian at the University of Pennsylvania. ``They should feel proud.''

But a high-ranking union source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not claim victory, saying that each side made sizable concessions. Pittston spokesmen did not return phone calls.

Health and pension benefits were a key rallying point for the striking miners. In 1988, Pittston pulled out of industrywide negotiations, organized by the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, saying its provisions were too onerous. It then stopped paying into the multi-employer retirement fund and proposed to take care of retirees with its own program. It also wanted to pay 80 percent of covered medical expenses instead of the full 100 percent.

But the new proposal does not allow that. Pittston agreed to continue paying full health and pension benefits and begin paying again into the health and pension funds.

The major difference is that instead of paying miners' medical insurance deductible when they fall ill, the company would pay the miners $500 directly twice a year. The idea is to encourage miners to keep the money, rather than spending it on needless medical procedures.

Perhaps the most important strategic provision of the proposed contract involves reducing the company's ability to transfer work from its union to its nonunion operations.

``If Pittston capitulated on that one, I don't know what they went to a strike for,'' Mr. Kilpatrick says.

Under the multi-employer contract, union companies that also have nonunion operations must hire 50 percent of those nonunion workers from the ranks of unemployed union miners. But in the new contract proposal, Pittston would agree to hire 80 percent union members for its nonunion mines. And in the case of subcontracted operations, the figure would rise to 95 percent, according to union sources.

In return for these gains, the union made significant concessions on work rules. Pittston would gain the ability to have miners work a 10-hour-a-day, four-day-a-week schedule, an innovation for the coal fields' traditional eight-hour day. This, and the ability to schedule Sunday work, would allow the company to start round-the-clock operations.

But Pittston would not be able to force miners to work the Sunday day shift, which Pittston had demanded early on. According to the high-ranking union official, these and other seemingly small concessions will restrict miners' flexibility in setting their work schedule.

The company also would be able to hire nonunion maintenance and trucking personnel in its union mines, but with certain restrictions.

Even if it gets the contract ratified, the UMWA is not completely in the clear. It still faces a whopping $64.1 million in fines from a local judge here, who has given the union until Thursday to convince him to drop the fines.

``This has been a very unusual case from Day One,'' says Russell County Circuit Judge Donald McGlothlin. He found miners guilty of violent acts in 400 of the 760 allegations brought before him and placed increasingly heavy fines as the incidents of violence continued.

In the majority of such cases, the fines are waived or substantially reduced once a labor agreement is reached. When the union last week offered that its members would do 10,000 hours of community service instead of paying the fines, Judge McGlothlin called it ``almost an affront to this court.''

``The judge is in something of a bind,'' says Neil Bernstein, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He wants to let the union know that his court orders cannot be defied, but the fines he imposed were so unrealistically high that they gave the miners little incentive to obey, he adds.

In the end, the fines will probably be substantially cut, because they could otherwise bankrupt the union, he says, which would not be in anybody's interests.

But miners and union sources suggest the judge may be operating from different motives. In November his father lost his seat in the Virginia House of Delegates to Jackie Stump, president of UMW District 28. He is also a first cousin once removed of the head of United Coal, a virulently antiunion coal mine company in Virginia.

When asked by the union to step down from the case because of the relationship with his father, McGlothlin ruled there was no conflict of interest. And in an interview, he claimed that there was no conflict of interest in his relationship with United Coal. ``I have never been connected with them,'' he says.

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