Rallies May Bring Coal Miners' Strike Out of Shadows

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

LABOR Day brings little hope to faltering talks between 17,000 striking coal miners and the mine owners' association. The two sides won't even call the efforts here to end the nation's largest labor dispute - a three-month strike in seven states - ``negotiations.''

So the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) will try to drum up some support and badly needed news-media attention in a series of rallies this weekend in West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Indiana.

The union says the owners failed to live up to a pledge in 1988 that they would reserve three-fifths of the jobs for the union as new mines replace the worn-out ones. Instead, says union spokesman Jim Grossfeld, the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA) is creating front companies to run the new mines and hiring only nonunion workers.

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Miners who have worked for 15 and 20 years as productivity soared now find they have used up the soft coal in their mine shafts and are out of work. Meanwhile, the giant Peabody, Zeigler, and Consol mine companies open new mines under different names and hire nonunion workers.

A spokesman for the BCOA, Thomas Hoffman, agrees that this practice, called ``double breasting,'' is taking place. But he says the new companies created to run the new mines never signed the pact. It is not a ``moral'' issue but a ``legal'' one, he says.

He also says the operators can raise productivity by using nonunion help, which is cheaper and more ``flexible'' without union limitations. The union replies that unionized mines are safer and as productive as nonunion shafts. Case could shed light on future of unions

With national union membership down to 12 percent of the work force, the fate of the still powerful UMWA, which claims 70,000 of the country's 100,000 miners, could be a harbinger of the destiny of organized labor.

``The vision of what the workplace of the future will be like is on trial in the coal fields now,'' the BCOA's Mr. Grossfeld says.

Besides job security, he says, the union is hoping to ``move past adversarial labor relations'' and develop a team effort in which workers are asked to think and share decisionmaking with management. ``If [this] can work in the coal fields, which have a history of being the most combative labor-management [arena] in the country, it can work anywhere,'' he adds. Intimidating acts accompany strike

Although Grossfeld says this strike is one of the least violent in recent Appalachian history, the coal company spokesman said there have been problems: roadblocks, rock throwing, ball bearings shot at people from slingshots, ``jack rocks'' or twisted nails used to puncture tires, people threatened, and one man killed.

In addition, conveyor belts to carry coal have been slashed, electric-power poles burned down with flares, windows on cars and offices broken, and delivery trucks followed and driven off the road, Mr. Hoffman says. The union is already obligated to pay $65 million in fines for violence in a 1989 strike in Virginia.

The strike comes after coal production ran just below record 1990 levels of more than 1 billion tons, an amount that fuels much of the country's electric power and could account for a larger share as nuclear-power plants are decommissioned. But with mining staffs reduced from 800,000 in the 1920s to 100,000 today due to high-tech machines, the mine owners enjoy a large supply of labor vying for an ever-smaller pool of jobs.

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