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Coal miners' pact: costly, but timely

If striking American coal miners ratify a new, tentative contract when they vote June 6, it is estimated the cost of the industry will be $1.5 billion a year.

That, in turn, is expected to cause a 10 percent-a-ton rise in coal prices.

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Unlike the one United Mine Workers Union members rejected last March, the agreement reached May 29 apparently gives the miners virtually all they sought.

And despite it cost, the settlement -- covering the next 40 months -- brightens the outlook for the coal industry in domestic and foreign markets; labor uncertainty has been a drawback.

The 10-week-old strike has shut down 44 percent of the country's coal production and eroded more than half of the huge stockpiles built up by utilities and other large industrial coal consumers. However, shortages have not yet caused serious problems -- and will not if the UMW membership ratifies the new agreement with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA).

As revised in intensive bargaining over the past week, the settlement will:

* Increase miners' wages and benefits 38 percent over 40 months -- boosting the hourly rate of the average union miner from $10.10 and hour to $13.70 by 1984.

* Restore to the contract a UMW health and welfare fund royalty on nonunion coal processed by union employers, along with substantial guarantees of UMW jurisdiction over construction and maintenance work at mines. The royalty on nonunion coal will now be raised from $1.90 a ton to about $2.36 a ton.

* Eliminate a 45-day probationary period for newly hired miners, sought by employers but opposed by miners as a potential "union-busting" scheme.

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Sam M. Church JR., president of the UMW, concedes that he misjudged the mood of the union membership in submitting the earlier contract. "I made a mistake," he says, in giving ground on several issues, hoping for a quick settlement and minimum disruption of coal production.

This time, he will present to strikers what he says is "probably the best contract that will be negotiated this year in any industry," and he and other union negotiators will spread out through coalfields for six days of "thorough" explanations of the new terms.

The BCOA negotiators obviously retreated from stubbornly held positions that had delayed a settlement for 65 days. Many coal mine operators are unhappy -- a fact that could lead to future problems within the BCOA.

The strike has cost miners $50 million a week in lost wages -- about $312.50 each. By June 6, when they will cast their secret ballots on the new agreement, their wage loss will exceed $3,000 each. Most miners have accumulated reserves, but these have now been largely depleted and credit is becoming harder to get from merchants badly hurt financially because of lost business during the long walkout.

Miners throughout the coalfields, and particularly those in Appalachia, are militantly independent and frequently oppose their national leaders. Despite the improvements in the propossed contract, some rank-and-file grievances are still unresolved. While these do not appear consequential enough to jeopardize approval of the pact and the end of the strike, antimanagement sentiments and factional opposition to the UMW national leadership still could cause another flare-up of tro ubles for Mr. Church.

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