PITTSBURGH — THIS stretch of suburban Pittsburgh - across the street from a drugstore and shopping mall - is an unusual spot for a picket line. But there it is: Four coal miners, sitting on lawn chairs, holding signs, picketing the headquarters of Consol Inc. - the nation's second-largest coal company.
Passing motorists gawk. It is as if America is just waking up to the nation's coal strike. The walkout, now in its eighth week, is likely to drag on for some time. "We're beginning to see a pricing impact," says Rafael Villagran, a coal-industry analyst with Lehman Brothers. So far the price hike has been modest: about 5 to 15 percent in the Illinois Basin and northern Appalachian markets, where the strike is concentrated. If it continues, and "if the economy gains momentum, and the winter is colder, the
impact could be significantly higher," Mr. Villagran adds.
The strike has been slow in starting, largely because the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) are slowly escalating the stakes. After the contract ran out Feb. 1, a small-scale strike, and a contract extension with more unsuccessful talks, the union began pulling its members out May 10. Job security is main issue
It has expanded the strike five times since then and now has 14,000 of its members in six states on picket lines. That is about one-third of the union miners employed by companies who are part of a multi-employer bargaining group called the Bituminous Coal Operators' Association (BCOA). No talks have been held since the strike began.
The main reason the two sides cannot get together on a new contract is that they cannot agree on the provisions of the old one. The flash point is job security. For decades, the UMWA has seen its membership - and its clout - dwindle, partly because the overall number of miners has fallen and partly because nonunion operations have grown at the expense of unionized mines. Typically, large coal companies operate union and nonunion subsidiaries.
The UMWA signed an agreement with the BCOA in 1988. Under it, employers who opened or expanded a nonunion mine pledged to give the first three of every five new jobs to laid-off UMWA members. These provisions are spelled out in Article II of the contract and were discussed near the end of the talks. UMWA President Richard Trumka and Consol head B. R. Brown vehemently disagree on what was said.
"If a company had not signed the contract, regardless of any common corporate heritage it shared with a signatory company, it had no obligation to offer any jobs to UMWA miners," Mr. Brown told reporters in Washington last week. "I understood those provisions when I negotiated the contract. More importantly, I believe that Rich Trumka, who is a lawyer by training, understood the provisions as well."
UMWA Research Director Mike Buckner, who also attended the talks, remembers the conversation much differently. The union, led by Mr. Trumka, asked Brown directly whether various nonunion Consol mines would be covered by the contract.
" `Does this cover Bailey? [a nonunion Consol operation]' And the answer was `Yes,' " Mr. Bucker recalls. " `Does this cover Buckhannon?' The answer was `Yes.' `Does this cover Sierra?' And the answer was `Yes.' Then Brown said: `You have no problem with Consol.' " Contract obligations
But the union would come to have great problems with Consol. According to the union, Brown promised that three out of five new openings at his nonunion Bailey operation would go to UMWA workers. Yet during the life of the contract, part of the Bailey complex became Enlow Fork Mining Company - a subsidiary of Du Pont Energy Inc. Although Du Pont has a 50 percent stake in Consol, it did not sign the contract. That exempts Enlow Fork from accepting union members, the employers argue. The union maintains it has been betrayed. "They're creating companies out of thin air," says Jim Grossfeld, a UMWA spokesman.
The dispute is making it hard for the sides to agree to job-security provisions. BCOA is proposing job security that is clearly better than its interpretation of the last contract. It would require nonunion mines, even nonsignatory ones, to give three out of five new jobs to union members. But the companies reserve the right to hire the first 40 percent of the work force. The union says it is a step backward from the three-out-of-five provision it won in 1988.
Three companies have left the BCOA so far. Amax dropped out when it decided to merge with a non-BCOA member, Cyprus Minerals Company, earlier this month. The union ended its strike against AMAX, since the company plans to allow its workers to be covered by an agreement being negotiated between UMWA and Cyprus. The BCOA is taking AMAX to court, saying the company cannot leave a multi-employer group once negotiations have started.
Two smaller BCOA members, CLI Inc. and Freeman Energy Corporation/Freeman United Coal Corporation, have also pulled out and have signed interim agreements with the union to avoid being struck.
The moves put more pressure on BCOA members who are not producing coal, but only a little more, says Thomas Hoffman, spokesman for the BCOA negotiating committee. Four-fifths of United States coal already comes from non-BCOA members. The key BCOA members - Consol, Peabody, and Arch Minerals Corporation - have shown no signs of backing down, Villagran adds.