The mechanical coal-eating monster known as the "longwall" is spewing out a black river of coal again in the bowels of a West Virginia mountain here. It was idle for more than a week while the men who work this mine staged a wildcat strike over a local issue. Today they have returned, having won their point. And the longwall, which is so expensive it must be operated almost continuously to pay for itself, is back at work, too.
But if the coal-blackened miners toiling in the dust-choked darkness of this mine have their way -- and they probably will --the $3 million piece of equipment will come to a shuddering halt as the men obey the longstanding miners' dictum -- "no contract, no work."
United Mine Workers (UMW) president Sam Church Jr. has asked his 160,000 -member union to continue working after the current contract expires, while the new unionwide settlement, okayed by the UMW bargaining committee March 25, moves through the union's 10-day ratification process.
But according to these miners, the coal companies are whistling in the dark if they expect miners to work without a contract. Asked if they would work past midnight, a half-dozen miners sitting in the impromptu "dinner hall" in an idle section of the mine's shaft shook their heads and answered, "No."
Sam doesn't really expect us to do that," observed one, his coal-smudged face illuminated by the light from this reporter's headlamp. "He has to ask that to show he's being open-minded."
The other miners sitting on tin cans and fallen slabs of rock in this subterranean mess hall also seemed ready to secondguess the UMW's leader on the "no contract, no work" issue.
Will they, and thousands of independently minded miners like them, be equally willing to second-guess the union leadership on the larger issues of the proposed settlement?
Conversations with miners in both the northern and southern regions of West Virginia indicate the following:
* A widespread suspicion among the rank and file, aroused by the quick manner in which the settlement was reached after grim pronouncements by Mr. Church that a six-month strike was inevitable.
* Deep distrust of Consolidated Coal Company and its president, B. R. Brown, chief negotiator for the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA). Many miners charge that Consolidated has been behind most of the labor unrest in this state.
* A Conviction that "big coal" and "big oil" are engaged in a sinister attempt to bring the coal under the control of a few companies.
* Boasts that the last UMW strike, which lasted 111 days, "taught us something" and that miners could hold out for six months.
No one here expects a six-month strike, however. It seems probable that the miners in West Virginia will walk out as scheduled, if for no other reason than "the sun is shining awful bright and the rivers look just right for fishing," as one miner put it. But even those observers who anticipate speedy ratification of the proposed contract worry about the prospects if it is rejected.
Three years ago, the UMW leadership offered an early settlement. It was rejected by the rank and file, leading to one of the longest strikes in the union's history. The feeling among observers here is that the provisions of the current settlement are "sweet" enough to avoid such an outcome.
The key issue among West Virginia miners appears to be the pay raise, which reportedly amounts to $3.30 an hour over three years. Miners say this package will not keep them ahead of inflation. The Sunday work issue, which was resolved in the union's favor, is also highly important, as evidenced by the religious exhortations scrawled on mine walls and the charismatic Christian stickers adorning above-ground work areas.
"I've got five lay preachers in one mine alone," observed one mine manager. HE added, "My boys don't walk around with a pint of whiskey in their back pocket , they carry a Bible there."
In the highly volatile coal fields around Charleston, miners are known as especially strike-prone. They have emptied the mines because they didn't like the textbooks in their children's schools or because gasoline prices were too high. Here, there is uncertainty about the prospects of a strike, especially among the mine supervisors, who know the miners' strike mentality.
"Last time, they went back to the bargaining table three times," observes one 40-year veteran of the mines. "Although Church seems to be optimistic and [the union leadership] is recommending it [the contract] to the rank and file, there's no way of telling. It's hard to tell what these boys think. They're a breed of their own, that's for sure."
The intentions of this "breed of their own" are a matter of intense speculation among shopkeepers and tradespeople here, because so much of their livelihood depends on the miners.
"I hope it's settled," said the manager of one Clarksburg clothing store, which caters to a moderately high-paying trade. "Coal miners in this area are making more than anyone. A miner working overtime can pull in $20,000-$30,000 a year. There's many a junior executive who doesn't make that much."
While most people here seem guardedly optimistic, they worry about the prospects of a long, violent strike. Says a local newspaper editor, "Those coal miners khow how to play rough. And the coal companies can play rough too."