America's coal miners will be paying for their strike victory for a long time - perhaps for the next 15 or 20 years.
Now that the new contract has been signed, one hears it said that the miners won most of their demands. But "won" may not be an entirely appropriate word in this context.
There are no winners in wars; there are only survivors. In economic warfare, both sides also lose, just as both sets of warriors lose on battlefields.
There are several ways to calculate how much our coal miners gained and how much they sacrificed to achieve those gains, but none are precise.
Pay increases were long overdue in the coalfields, and there is indication that if pay alone had been at issue, substantial increases would have been offered early in the negotiations and mutually satisfactory compromises would have been worked out relatively quickly.
However, it was soon apparent that pay scales were not the major problem. Fringe issues were the ones that held things up at the rejection by the union when the bargainers thought they had a workable deal.
So in the arithmetic that follows we will use percentages as well as dollar amounts, because percentages include many fringe benefits that do not lend themselves to precise individual applications.
In this newspaper's story about the settlement, we said the final terms included some major concessions by the mine owners - things like "reduction of new health care deductibles from a maximum of $700 a year to $200 a year. Pensions for older retirees were also increased somewhat."
The individual miner may not be able to translate such benefits into dollars that apply to his paycheck, but managements always have a pretty good idea of the total cost of each fringe benefit, so simple arithmetic can produce an "average" dollar value.
A bottom line fiure is therefore readily available. "The benefit changes," said our story, "increased the total cost of the package from roughly 37 percent to 39 per cent instead of only 37 per cent.
This gives us some numbers we can deal with, after a fashion. We can say that the minors' wage package was 100 percent before the strike, and that it could have been increased to a much higher figure (perhaps 130 percent) after a short strike or perhaps with no strike at all.
As the strike wore on, the mine owners on several occasions sweetened their offer a bit. When it reached 137 percent of the pre-strike level, they again thought they had an agreement, but that was also rejected.
It wasn't unitl the owners offered a package worth 139 percent of the prestrike contract that the miners "won," and accepted. Now we can look back over the chronology of negotiations and calculate what the victory cost.
A strike that lasts for 109 days costs strikers 15.57 weeks of pay. If they could have been working for 15.57 weeks at from 130 to 137 percent of their previous pay, but refused to work in order to gain their funal 2 percentage points, the arithmetic is simple. If they gave up 137 times 15.57 (2.133), they will have to work at the 2 percent higher arate for 1,066 1/2 weeks (20 1/2 years) before they break even. In dollars, one can say that a wage of $65 a day is $325 a week, and 2 percent of $325 is $6.50. Giving up $325 a week for 15.57 weeks cost each miner $5,060. To recapture this amount at this rate of $6.50 a week will take 778 weeks or 15 years.
There are also other ways to calculate the victories and defeats for each side, and varying answers will emerge depending on how the problem si stated and how the fringe benefits are figured. But whatever the method of calculation, it is clear that wage scales were not the key to this dispute. There were intangibles present that caused negotiators to dig in and say, "The hell with the money; we'll starve before we yield on this point."
But it does seem a pity that so many wars are fought by people who know full well that eventually they must reach accommodation and learn to live together in peace.
Somehow we seldom generate much enthusiasm for making peace until our heads are banged together and our noses are bloodied.
Then, after the damage has been done, we realize that it's not really a badge of honor to be known as hardnosed and uncompromising. Sometimes it even occurs to us that a hard nose may suggest the presence of an equally hard head.