What price victory for union coal miners as strike ends?
The United Mine Workers (UMW) may have won a strike after 73 days on picket lines in coalfields across the country, but serious problems remain for the union, its president, Sam Church, and its 160,000 rank-and-file members.
Most miners were not happy with the agreement but after 10 weeks of striking, financial reserves were running low; some talked about "voting from their pockets" in approving the new contract.
While labor troubles were not entirely cleared away -- UMW construction workers remained on strike when miners prepared to return to work June 7 -- this was the situation:
* The long strike had cost miners an estimated $3,000 to $5,000 each. Traditionally, union members who strike over basic principles are willing to make such a sacrifice for a victory that preserves union jobs and strengthens their union. In the UMW situation, many rank-and-filers are far from convinced that their sacrifice of wages was justifiable.
* The UMW's strength in the coal industry has been slipping steadily. It now represents miners who dig only about 44 percent of all coal produced; the remainder comes from nonunion mines. The new agreement is supposed to reinforce the union's position, but some in the industry and union predict a further growth of nonunion operations in more mechanized mines and in open-pit and strip mines. The UMW now faces aggressive organizing among nonunion miners who are likely to be more reluctant to join the union because of its long strike.
* Mr. Church faces reelection in 1982. He has made powerful enemies in the union in attempting to win a new contract this year without a strike. He lost and will undoubtedly face strong opposition next year.
* The coal industry, while it finally gained ground on issues that it had placed high on its list of bargaining demands, demonstrated that a UMW strike can be weathered successfully by the operators and, more critically, by the national economy. The long walkout may have proved a serious setback to UMW bargaining power. Some in the industry already are talking of a new strategy of building up huge coal reserves and taking UMW strikes triennially instead of engaging in "giveaway" negotiations with the union. If this attitude spreads, a hoped-for improvement in relations between the coal industry and the UMW would appear to be doomed.