UMW tries to regain its former muscle

Richard Trumka, a lawyer and former coal miner who has served for the past year as president of the United Mine Workers (UMW), hopes to rebuild the weakened, factional union to its former strong position in the labor movement.

Presiding over his first convention in Pittsburgh, Mr. Trumka pledged a ''resurgence'' of the union that was, in the 1940s, one of the country's most powerful. The UMW is now down to 180,000 members, hardly half of its peak membership. About one-third of those are unemployed.

Considered by the UMW and the coal industry to be a skilled, potentially strong leader, Trumka faces a challenge to overcome dissension within the union and to strengthen the president's powers, if he is to accomplish his goal of a unified, stronger UMW. Many of the 1,400 delegates appear reluctant to accept his proposals.

Critics within the union say the new policies Trumka wants could keep him in power for decades and that the changes would undermine a democratic structure created through a rank-and-file reform movement 11 years ago.

Trumka's supporters say the reforms that ended years of autocratic leadership have been ineffective, as they require a strong, highly competent president. Without this leadership at the top, UMW fortunes in the coalfields have declined because of factionalism. Three long, nationwide strikes have further weakened it. Nonunion coal production has increased sharply at a cost of union jobs.

In calling for more powers for the presidency, Trumka adopted a strategy intended to reinforce his position as a strong leader recognized in the American labor movement.

He asked Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, to address the convention's opening session. It was the first time a president of the federation had been invited to speak at a UMW convention.

Mr. Kirkland's visit was largely intended to mobilize UMW support for organized labor's campaign to elect former Vice-President Walter F. Mondale as president in 1984. But the visit was also a test of the willingness of the UMW's rank and file to consider joining the AFL-CIO sometime in the near future.

Trumka did not fare well when the convention moved on to the specific changes he wants made. Delegates gave him a free hand in bargaining, as long as he grants no concessions. But they rejected his proposal for a special UMW strike fund to finance selective strikes (instead of a nationwide walkout) and to assess working miners' wages up to 5 percent to build up reserves.

The convention majority also rebuffed other changes that would have allowed the UMW president to bypass the 41-member bargaining council of district leaders , a body whose bickering has frequently made coal negotiations harder and led to strikes.

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