• U.S.

LABOR: Coal’s Chilling Strike

5 minute read

The light at the end of the tunnel in the United Mine Workers contract negotiations went out last week, and the nation was faced with the certainty that a dreaded nationwide coal strike would begin midnight Monday. The key question was how long the 120,000 union miners would stay out. U.M.W. President Arnold R. Miller predicts a strike lasting about two weeks; Interior Department officials figure that the walkout could go on for three weeks —and that underground mines would stay closed for a week after that while federal inspectors check them for safety. Even a short shutdown would damage the nation’s faltering economy. A prolonged walkout would kick up the already high 6% U.S. jobless rate, topple the economy into a deeper recession, and possibly force a disruptive confrontation between Government and labor.

Bargaining with the quiet assistance of Federal Mediator W.J. Usery Jr., negotiators for the U.M.W. and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association led by General Counsel Guy Farmer came close to reaching tentative agreement early last week. But at week’s end they still had not been able to wrap up a pact, and though some hope of a quick settlement remained, no time was left to stop the strike. Any new contract must be ratified by miners around the nation, a process that will take ten days or so. Miller last week firmly closed the door on any possibility that the miners would remain in the pits while the vote was being held.

Key Differences. However long the strike lasts, the coal situation will aggravate inflation. The miners are determined to win an increase of about 40% in wages and benefits over three years, which would equal the increase won by steelworkers last April. Late last week the miners, who earn between $41 and $50 a day, won their demand for wage boosts of 8% in the first year of a new three-year contract and 4% in each of the next two years. But key differences remain. The operators have offered the union its first cost of living escalator, calling for a penny-an-hour pay hike for every point rise in the cost of living index; the miners want a cent for every .3 rise.

In addition, the U.M.W. is pushing for five-days-a-year paid sick leave v. none now. The miners also want a huge increase in the royalty paid by companies to support the union’s health and retirement plans, from 800 per ton of coal mined now to $1.55 by 1977.

The miners feel that their demands are justified because the profits of some coal companies have tripled or even quadrupled so far this year. But a settlement of the size that the U.M.W. wants would probably lift the price of coal above its present record $15 a ton on long-term contracts and put more upward pressure on utility bills, steel prices and the cost of chemicals. Miller, in his first big bargaining test as U.M.W. president, has no margin for moderation. He runs the risk that his fractious rank and file members will thumb down any agreement he signs.

Walkout Impact. U.M.W. members dig 75% of the nation’s soft coal, and the impact of their walkout on the economy will be felt quickly. Half of the electricity generated in the U.S. is fired by coal. A walkout could quickly lead to power cutbacks in factories and homes, especially in the Southeast, where many utilities are down to a two-week coal stockpile. The Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s biggest producer of electricity, has asked customers to reduce consumption by 20%. Coal-hauling railroads, notably the bankrupt Perm Central, would be hurt swiftly. All together, 12,000 railroad workers face layoffs in the next two weeks.

Steel mills, which have about 30 days of coking coal on hand, would immediately be forced to slow production to conserve stocks. If a strike lasted only two weeks, industry officials say, steel production would be slashed in half. Scarcities would cripple production in the auto, construction and appliance industries. Indeed, the effects of a coal strike would rapidly spread into almost every sector of the economy and chop $3 billion from the nation’s output of goods and services in just two weeks. By Government estimate, a month-long strike would add as many as half a million workers to the ranks of the unemployed, which already total 5.5 million.

The Federal Energy Administration has worked out a “priority use” program that would funnel foreign and nonunion coal (about 25% of the total) into certain vital areas. The Government has also drawn up a stage-by-stage series of emergency steps, beginning with the relaxation of certain antipollution standards (for example, to let utilities burn relatively smoky coal if that is all that is available) and ending with a ban on nonessential lighting.

Administration officials concede that at some point, perhaps three weeks after a walkout begins, President Ford would probably have to obtain a Taft-Hartley Act injunction that would send the miners back to work for an 80-day cooling-off period. White House aides have been unenthusiastic about resorting to Taft-Hartley. They reason that angry miners would dig as little coal as possible during the cooling-off period. Then the strike might resume after the injunction expired, with coal stockpiles even more depleted than before.

One ominous measure of the U.M.W.’s mood: some of its key officials, including Miller, have been visiting Britain to discuss strike tactics with the ultramilitant leaders of that country’s coal miners. As mentors, the British miners have harrowing credentials. Last year they staged a four-month slowdown and strike that battered the United Kingdom’s economy, drove prices into the stratosphere and toppled the Conservative Government.

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