The city edition had been put to bed Monday morning, and the few of us who were left in the news room gathered at the city desk to talk about the top story of the day.

"What do you think was in the minds of the coal miners when they turned down the contract?" I asked. "They knew that if they didn't come back willingly, the president and the Congress would force them to come back. So what's to be gained by continued defiance?"

"What's to be gained," said copy editor BOB Payne, "is everything they demanded. They're going to end up getting everything they wanted."

"I'm not so sure about that," I said. "In the long run they may price themselves out of the market and make it easier for nuclear energy and solar energy to close a lot of those mines permanently."

"You're talking about long range philosophical questions," Payne countered. "They're thinking about short range practical questions like, 'How much is this kind of work worth?' and 'How much can I make them pay me for it?' That was what was in their minds when they voted."

I don't know what a day's work in the mines is worth," said Gene Bachinski, the man in the night city editor's slot, "but I wouldn't do it at any price."

"Nor would I," said Payne.

My grandmother lost three husbands in the mines," Bachinski went on. "Each time, she married another miner; and each time coal min? ing widowed her. My father started working in the mines when he was 14, and he was one of the lucky ones. He survived and left the mines in his 30s. But after he was 65 - after being out of the mines for 39 year - he developed black lung. If you lived in a coal town, you'd know what was in those miners' minds when they turned down the contract."

He has a point. As a young man, I worked in West Virginia long enough to know about coal miners, and about 14-year-old "coal minors" like Gene's father, who grow up in areas of the country that offer little opportunity for employment except in mine-related activity.

I remember the monumental battles that John L. Lewis waged before he won his fight for health benefits for the miners. And by chance I also had an opportunity to learn how effectively the union uses its health fund to rehabilitate miners injured in cave-ins and other mine accidents. Those of you who have been reading this column for a long time may remember Dorothy Kilmer, the girl who was paralyzed for life by an errant bullet. When I began to write about the nature of her injury, I learned that doctors at George Washington University Hospital had extensive experience with paraplegia cases that result from mine accidents. So I'm no stranger to mining, miners, or the price these men pay for the coal they produce, I think we owe them a fair shake.

But in the end, I doubt that fairness will determine their wage scales, their job security or the extent to which they are employed or unemployed. In the long run, economic forces will play the dominant role. The miners will prosper only if they have the delicate touch (or good luck) to charge all the traffic will bear - but no more.

If they fail to drive a good enough bargain, they will cheat themselves. If they drive too hard a bargain, they will destroy their industry.

In a sense, all of us who work for a living face the same choices each time we argue about our wages and working conditions. Contract negotiatiaons aren't just a high-stakes poker game in which the best bluffers win; they're the periodic reassessments so essential to the fine-tuning of our economic system.

Negotiations give each of us a chance to obtain a reasonable reward for the contribution we make. They also present us with the recurring danger that too much success for either side at the bargaining table can lead to ruin for both sides.

Short-term solutions can be political, and usually are. Long-term determination is made by economic forces that travel a course of their own choosing and wear no party labels.