The chairman of the Bituminous Coal Operators Association said yesterday that his organization has no plans to resume negotiations with the United Mine Workers union, whose members firmly rejected a tentative three-year contract their leaders worked out with BCOA officials.
The rejection came in balloting that began Tuesday morning in soft-coal fields in the East and Midwest and ended Tuesday night with more than a 2-to-1 "no" vote by the union's rank and file.
The antiratification verdict and the BCOA's apparent hesitancy to resume talks mean the UMW strike that began March 27, when the old contract expired, will continue indefinitely.
"We are disappointed with the miners' rejection of the agreement negotiated with the UMW leadership and approved by its bargaining council," said B.R. "Bobby" Brown, the BCOA's chairman and chief negotiator.
"The majority of the miners voting apparently chose to listen to dissidents who were not involved in the bargaining process and who, for whatever reasons, misrepresented the agreement and assured its defeat.
"This rejection reflects a disturbing lack of bargaining discipline in the UMW, which puts the integrity of the bargaining process in serious jeopardy. u. . . The BCOA has no plans to resume negotiations," Brown said.
A lengthy strike, such as the record 111-day walkout that occurred in 1977-78, would be expected to hurt the union more than the national economy -- in the beginning, at least.
The UMW has no strike fund, and about 25,000 of its members already are on unemployment rolls. Industry sources claim they have enough coal stockpiled to meet delivery obligations for the next four months. The BCOA, with its 130 member coal firms, produces 44 percent of the nation's coal.
Out West, the UMWA already has settled contracts with independent coal firms.
UMW President Sam Church Jr., who had invested his reputation in a highly personal attempt to win approval of the contract, was unavailable for comment yesterday. He also was unavailable Tuesday night when the bad news began flowing in from coal fields in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and other places where the contract was going down, in some places by as much as an 11-to-1 vote.
Yesterday normally would have been a paid UMW holiday honoring the late union leader John Mitchell and the anniversary of the first eight-hour workday. But instead, at least for some of the union's officials, it was a day of retreat given to private, often bitter post mortems.
The consensus was that the contract was defeated because of a UMW concession allowing BCOA firms to discontinue royalty payments on the purchase of "nonsignatory coal" -- coal bought from firms not included in UMW/BCOA contracts. "Signatory" firms include electric utilities that own coal mines but that often purchase low-sulfur, sub-bituminous coal to comply with environmental protection laws.
Sub-bituminous coal most often is found in the West, which is dominated by nonunion mines.
As a result, the $1.96-a-ton royalty payment into the UMW's health and welfare funds -- arranged since 1964 -- was used as much to discourage the use of nonunion coal and miners as it was to bolster the UMW's benefits.
"There was a total, very emotional misunderstanding over the nonsignatory coal issue," one UMW official said. "The whole damned thing was blown out of proportion by people who got to the miners before we did. There was a lot of politicking on this thing, and that really hurt us," the official said.