What could be the most important labor contract negotiations in the first year of the Reagan administration got under way Jan. 22 with pension and cost-of-living adjustments the key issues facing bargaining representatives of the nation's soft coal industry and the United Mine Workers (UMW).
The Bituminous Coal Operators Association, which represents employers of 170, 000 miners in the East, and the UMW expressed optimism about a peaceful settlement before a March 27 contract deadline. However, while odds are against a critical nationwide coal strike then, a walkout by 900 UMW workers employed by Western strip-mine operators has indicated the seriousness of miners' demands.
UMW locals with contracts covering five Peabody Coal Company strip mines struck on Jan. 15 demanding substantial improvements in their pension plan and a cost- of-living adjustment (COLA) formual similar to those now considered standard for almost all industrial unions. The union's wage demands, while high , appear less of an issue.
The negotiations just beginning in Washington involve many of the same issues as those in the strike against Peabody Coal. Rank- and-file miners, although they are among the nation's highest paid industrial workers, with a maximum $88 a day in Eastern mines, complain that their pension program is substandard and that inflation is eroding the buying po wer of their wages because they do not have a full COLA plan