The coal industry's contract crisis apparently is over, with no more than a mine shutdown of a week or less expected. But economic problems for the industry and its 160,000 union miners now will increase.
Utilities and industrial coal customers stockpiled more than 200 million tons of coal ----
With the domestic coal market already sluggish, a slowdon of purchases from mines while this backlog of coal is used is expected to force the companies to curtail production and lay off miners.
The coal "above ground" -- about 25 percent of total coal production in 1980 -- was an advantage to the industry in this year's negotiations. Mine operators faced little or no pressure for settling quickly.
However, the industry, looking to substantial expansion in years ahead, hoped for and apparently has achieved improved relations with the united Mine Workers.
The UMW also was eager to avoid a long strike -- one that would, it said, "have a terrible effect in the coal fields," exhausting the financial reserves of the union, which has no strike fund.
So, after a six-day breakoff of bargaining, negotiators for the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA) and the UMW got together Sunday night (March 22) and in five hours reached a settlement that UMW president Sam Church Jr. and B. R. Brown, the employers' negotiator, anounced as "fair" for both sides.
Terms of the agreement were not announced immediately, but they are known to include a 36 percent wage increase over three years and, according to Mr. Church , leave the industry-union pension plan unchanged.
MoreoveR, Church said in Washington, "My people can go to church on Sundays as they always have." A management demand for the right to schedule Sunday work, at double pay, was dropped.
Under the UMW constitution, the tentative agreement must be ratified through procedures that take nine or 10 days. This timetable would mean a formal contract signing about April 1, if the terms are ratified. UMW's traditional "no contract, no work" policy ordinarily would mean that mines would shut down on March 27, when the contract expires, for three of four working days.
"When the contract expires, our people will leave the mines," Church said after the settlement. However, he added, UMW's executive board "could ask miners to break with tradition and stay on the job."
Although some might do so, miners generally appear to be looking forward to an extended weekend holiday.
After last week's breakdown in contract negotiations, the UMW and the BCOA went through the rituals common in a contract deadlock. They dug in for a strike, with expressions of anger and emotionalism. Both talked about the possibility of a long mine shutdown, a walkout that might run longer than the 111-day strike of three years ago.
In fact, the two sides were not far apart. They had narrowed down the issues before a March 17 contract deadline and had gambled that these could be cleared away in the last few hours of talks. The efforts failed. An unanticipated and relatively minor issue -- a dispute over employer payments to the industry pension fund on purchased nonunion coal --line came.
Indicating the anxiety on each side about a settlement, Church and BCOA's Mr. Brown discussed informally a number of compromise possibilities even as the talks broke off.
Church, while talking publicly about the industry's "avarice and greed," said privately several days ago that the parties "could wrap things up in a day if everyone is serious about it." He proposed the resumption of talks.
The night of March 22, Church talked again with Brown by Phone. He said later, "They saw we were sincere about winding this thing up and decided to return and bargain in good faith." The parties got together after midnight and re ached a settlement after breakfast.