United Mine Workers union President Sam Church Jr. was on the telephone yesterday trying to get negotiators for the Bituminous Coal Operators Association to return to the bargaining table in an effort to cut short what is already a one-week strike.

It was a humiliating task, made necessary by the UMW membership's overwhelming rejection this week of a contract Church had worked out with BCOA officials March 23.

Neither industry nor union sources could, or would, say what kind of response Church got from BCOA chief negotiator B.R. "Bobby" Brown. But the betting, at least among industry sources, was that Church hung up his telephone receiver disappointed.

Going back to the bargaining table immediately after the union's members rejected the tenative contract would look too much like giving in, crawling for a settlement, one industry source explained. "We don't have to do that," the source said. The UMW's rank-and-file have rejected other tentative pacts worked out by their leaders, "and we're concerned about setting a pattern of rejection, renegotiation, acceptance," the industry source said.

"Besides," the source added, "you probably need a cooling-off period. It would make little sense to go back to the table with the miners still in a rejection mood."

But it wasn't supposed to be this way -- not this year when both union and industry representatives began their talks vowing to demonstrate the "stability" of the dometic soft-coal industry to the nation and the world. Not this time when the UMW, after a lengthy season of internal strife, had united under the leadership of "Sam the Man." Certainly not after the ruinous 111-day strike of 1977-78 that supposedly chastened both the union and the industry.

The BCOA's Brown said as much in a speech last Dec. 19 in Charleston, W.Va., about a month before serious contract talks began here.

"We are going into negotiations with the lessons of the past . . . firmly in mind. The contrast . . . is stark. This time, we meet in a common goal," Brown said, referring to the then-impending talks.

He said this year's contract would "establish a framework for future harmonious relations; serve notice that the progress made today only indicates additional progress which we can make tomorrow; and determine the economic parameters in which we can win our share of the coming coal era."

Church had expressed similar hopes in outlining his union's bargaining goals. For Brown and him, it was a case of optimism with cause.

Between 1971 and 1977, for example, the soft-coal industry in the East and Midwest, had been wracked by wildcat strikes that resulted in a loss of 2.3 million man days. But since 1978, the number of wildcat strikes dropped 85 percent, signaling an apparent coming of stability in labor-management relationships in the industry.

In 1977-78, the union was a sorry case, ripped through with dissension and lacking strong leadership. But in November, 1979, after illness and rank-and-file ill will forced the resignation of then-UMW president Arnold Miller, the feisty Sam Church took over, vowing to give his members the kind of tough leadership they said they needed.

One month later, at the union's 48th constitutional convention in Denver, it appeared that Church would do just that. He rammed through proposal after proposal, winning the one-time right to pick his own vice president without an election, and getting a series of approvals on administrative changes and fee and dues increases. It was an impressive show -- one that created great confidence, then, that Church could pull the ultimate hat trick of getting the first peaceful contract settlement in the turbulent eastern soft-coal industry since 1964.

But it wasn't to be. In a host of bitter post mortems, the blame is placed on Church's apparent misreading of his membership's desire to keep a provision aimed at holding down the purchase of nonunion coal by BCOA firms, such as electric utilities that own coal mines. Church conceded on that matter in an effort to win pensions for the widows of UMW miners.

Now, the conventional wisdom is that a lenghty strike would hurt the UMW a lot more than the industry or the national economy. But, like all bits on conventional wisdom, this one is imperfect.

Industry sources said yesterday that it would take two or three weeks before the current strike hurts their ability to keep shipping. But, they said, it will take a lot longer now to convince foreign buyers that U.S. coal is a dependable source.