New coal talks at end of tunnel?

Members of the United Mine Workers bargaining council will meet in Washington April 10 in a step toward renewed negotiations to end a strike that has shut off 44 percent of the nation's coal production for almost two weeks, Monitor labor correspondent Ed Townsend reports.

The council will review contract problems that led to an unexpected rejection of a tentative 35 percent settlement with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association and seek a basis for new talks, possibly next week.

Even if bargaining reopens soon, there is little optimism about a quick agreement; the strike could still be long. The rejection of the settlement by a 2-to-1 margin left the union with little leverage to win contract improvements the striking miners want. The industry shows no willingness to do more than it agreed to in its late March settlement.

A number of rules changes strongly objected to by miners are nonnegotiable: They were mandated by court decisions.

The operators are also prepared to stand firm on their newly won right not to pay a $1.90-a-ton royalty to the miners' pension fund on nonunion coal bought and processed for resale, and on a related clause that would allow unionized operators to sublease coalfields to nonunion contractors who would not have to hire union members or to give workers union pay and benefits.

With coal stockpiles large enough to assure major customers an adequate supply for three to four months, and with nonunion coal continuing to move steadily into the markets, operators are under little pressure to make further concessions. As one union official put it glumly, "They hold the cards; they can control the game for quite a whi le."

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