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UMW contract vote: signal to leadership

With coal miners turning thumbs down on a tentative contract agreement, it's back to the negotiating table for the union and industry representatives. The March 31 rejection has shattered hopes that a new era of improved relations between the coal industry and its unionized miners had been reached.

The result could be a long and bitter strike, perhaps exceeding the 111-day walkout in 1977-78. The move could also undermine the authority of United Mine Workers of America (UMW) president Sam Church Jr. and perhaps lead to a collapse of coal bargaining as it has been conducted for years.

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B. R. Brown, chief negotiator for the coal mine operators, said April 1 that the industry has no plans to resume negotiations with the UMW.

Miners did not seriously object to the economic terms of the agreement, although they complained that it did not include a formula for lifting wages periodically as prices go up. They showed more concern about union jobs in opposing contract revisions that would make it easier for union employers to give some work to non-UMW miners.

They also opposed a bargaining trade-off by union negotiators that would allow UMW-contract employers to buy, for resale, coal from nonunion mines without paying a tonnage royalty on the coal to the UMW pension fund.

The possibilities are a matter of deep concern in an industry with vast coal reserves in an energy-hungry world -- but with prospects now of continuing problems of instability that could seriously hamper efforts to expand the market for US coal.

An official of one major coal company said glumly after rejection of the contract appeared certain: "This is what we wanted to avoid. We can't make it through another blood bath."

The industry had hoped that a settlement this year without a strike would convince foreign utilities and other hesitant coal customers that they could now count on a dependable supply from US mines.

Toward that end, although they negotiated hard, bargaining representatives from the Bituminous Coal Operators Association made a number of concessions to the UMW with the approval of the BCOA executive board. Some of the major companies in the association have objected to these and now talk of "pulling back some things" in renewed negotiations.

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The UMW leadership appeared confident initially that a settlement with roughly 36 percent in wage and benefits gains would be approved by the necessary 65 percent majority of the UMW's 160,000 members.

This confidence faded quickly, however, when Mr. Church and other leaders fanned out through the coalfields to appeal for approval of the pact. In the end, close to 65 percent voted against the tentative contract.

Robert Carter, president of UMW District 30 in Kentucky, said flatly, "The membership just didn't like the contract."

The vote gave a similar message to UMW's top negotiator, Church, who took over the union presidency in 1979 with a pledge of more aggressive bargaining than under his predecessor , Arnold Miller.

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