Beyond the coal dispute

Regardless of how current negotiations between the United Mine Workers Union and the soft coal industry turn out, they again focus attention on a vital US industry that could be supplying far more of the nation's fuel than is currently the case. In fact, some labor and energy specialists believe that the most important outcome of the present contractual dispute should be an agreement by the union and industry -- whether through formal inclusion in the contract or tacitly -- to work together to bring about political and operational decisions that will help spur the production and use of coal.

At the same time, the UMW and mine operators need to improve their relationship to the point where future bargaining will be greatly eased. The reasons are clear. Although negotiators have traditionally talked about avoiding strikes, there has been a strike in each contractual period since 1964. The present contract, which expires March 27, was hammered together only after a lengthy 111-day walkout back in 1978. Further, even when contracts are finally agreed upon after a long ratification process, there tend to be independent "wildcat" strikes in individual mines -- usually involving contention by small groups of miners over various settlement terms.

For these reasons, both operators and miners should give greater thought to their triennial negotiations to ensure that they do not lead to unnecessary work stoppages and shutdowns. Given the vital need for reducing oil imports, any action that tends to disrupt coal production -- or categorizes the industry as unreliable or "untrustworthy" -- is a setback for achieving US energy independence.

Both the miners and operators have legitimate objectives to pursue at this time. The miners, who work in what are still the most hazardous industrial jobs in the United States, have sought to protect a multi-employer pension plan which operators are eager to replace with company-by-company pension plans. Operators , on the other hand, seeking to boost output, have been pushing for Sunday work, prohibited under the current contract. Certainly operators and miners should work together to ensure greater mine safety. Much progress along that line has been made in the past few years, but many miners still are reluctant to report unsafe conditions out of fear of being laid off for a long period while conditions are repaired or made safe. Operators, for their part, often fail to correct unsafe conditions because of "costs."

In addition to the "bread and butter" and safety issues, however, is the deeper long- range issue facing both miners and operators. Namely, that serious political, financial, transportation, and environmental problems continue to inhibit a major increase of coal production in the US. In other words, the union and management need to recognize, as many miners and coal officials do, that they have a stake in the industrial conversion to coal and expansion of coal output.

Here they may well have a solid booster in President Reagan, despite the miners' current concerns about proposed cutbacks in benefits for victims of black lung disease. The administration appears to be sympathetic to the view that environmental laws should be modified to help encourage coal usage. The task for all parties will be to ensure that whatever modifications are mad e are in the best interests of the public at large.

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