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Business: Collapse of the Coal Pact

3 minute read

Ban on wildcat strikes rouses the miners’ wrath

The meeting was supposed to begin at 10 a.m., Friday, at United Mine Workers headquarters, two blocks from the White House. The coal strike was nearing its 70th day, and Union President Arnold Miller hoped that the 39-member U.M.W. bargaining council would approve the proposed new contract that he and his aides had negotiated with the coal operators. But angry miners by the hundreds had journeyed to Washington, and they camped like an occupying force in the headquarters’ lobby.

“No, no,” shouted the protesters. They papered the walls with slogans of crude double-entendre: WHAT DID YOU GET US, ARNIE—THE SHAFT? Though the demonstrators pledged nonviolence, Miller did not enter the building. Charging them with “intimidation and threats,” he postponed the meeting and later said testily: “There cannot be any further collective bargaining until this irresponsible action ceases.” In his absence, members of the bargaining council took an unofficial vote. The panel of district leaders, reflecting deep dissatisfaction among the rank and file, voted down the contract, 33 to 3.

What provoked the rebellion against the settlement, which Miller had described as “by far the best agreement negotiated in any major industry in the past two years”? For most dissidents, money was not the rub: the agreement offers miners pay raises, over three years, that would lift their average hourly wage from $7.80 to $10.15. In all, wages and fringes would increase nearly 37%. But the contract also authorizes stiff penalties for absenteeism and, more important, seeks to do away with wildcat strikes. It allows mineowners to discipline wildcatters by requiring such strikers to pay $20 a day, for up to ten days per month, into the U.M.W. benefit funds. Many miners have grown up deeply suspicious of the owners’ reliability in complying with contract provisions and of the industry’s grievance procedures. With minimal provocation, miners often just walk out.

Precisely such wildcat strikes have long hobbled the coal industry and prevented it from attaining higher productivity. Indeed, the White House, looking forward to new heights of output from the miners, said nothing about the settlement’s obvious inflationary effects.

At week’s end the bargaining council had no plans to reconvene until, as Miller said, “the meeting can be held under orderly and constitutional procedures.” The dissident miners believe they hold a strategic advantage because coal supplies are fast falling short, particularly in the Middle West. All over that region utilities have been cutting back services. President Carter will try his powers of persuasion on the miners and operators. He has reason not to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act. As Robert Little, who came from Harlan County, Ky., to demonstrate, put it: “They can make us go back and work—but at what rate of speed? I can work awful slow.” ∙

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