Threats of a coal strike this fall turned more serious as negotiators for the bituminous industry and United Mine Workers broke off contract talks last week, with the two sides far apart on key issues.
A shutdown of mines in October would disrupt six years of labor peace and rising productivity and profits in an industry with a long record of union troubles.
In the auto industry, the outlook is brightening. While an auto strike is still possible, major automakers and the United Auto Workers (UAW) appear to be taking more moderate positions that could lead to settlements by a Sept. 14 deadline.
If the auto talks should break down, a UAW strike - probably against GM - would weaken economic activity, forcing production cutbacks in steel, glass, auto manufacturing, rubber, and other industries that supply materials and parts for cars and trucks.
But General Motors (GM) and the Ford Motor Company seem likely to reach tentative agreements with the UAW, which, if accepted by the unions' members, could reinforce national economic growth along with that of the auto industry.
Meanwhile, postal unions have put aside threats of illegal strikes against the Postal Service and agreed to submit contract bargaining differences to binding arbitration.
The coal, auto, and postal negotiations are the most important of the year, involving 150,000 miners, more than 500,000 auto workers, and about 600,000 postal employees. The auto settlement will be particularly important as a precedent for bargaining later this year and into 1985.
In all three sets of contract talks, the crucial issues are labor cost savings for management and job and wage security for union members. Each is reaching a critical point at a time when bargaining settlements have been at low levels.
Unions are now pressing demands for larger wage settlements, but job security and strong defenses against employer-sought contract concessions are more urgent in the three major negotiations now under way.
After a 111-day coal strike in 1978, mine operators and the UMW worked together to improve relations. The productivity of UMW members jumped 46 percent from 1978 to 1983, to an average of 16.4 tons a day. This substantially offset a 61 percent increase in wages, and, except for depressed coal prices, would have led to profit windfall for operators.
In the current bargaining, operators are seeking cost cuts that would, among others things, require miners to work more hours for the same pay. An industry spokesman said operators ''must get more cooperation from labor, or 20 percent of our mines may become economically unviable.''
Opposing operators' demands, UMW is seeking job protection, pointing out that 33 percent of all union miners are now unemployed.
Among other things, it wants guarantees that work now being subcontracted by employers to reduce costs be done instead by employers' own miners. The union also wants to continue work-rule limitations on what work miners can be assigned to do.
There are glum predictions from both sides that the impasse over such issues could lead to a long walkout.
Generally, coal stockpiles have been built up around the country by utilities and industrial plants that depend on coal. A short walkout, either nationally or against a few major producers, would be unlikely to cause serious problems. A long walkout would be serious, but not necessarily critical; coal imports would help meet shortages.