Before the country rushes on to the next tip-and-dip on the roller-coaster of current events, it might help to sort out the winners and losers in the now-ended coal strike. The No. 1 losers are the miners who, by all reports, voted to ratify this last of three contract attempts not only because they and their families had run out of money, but because their union officials lacked the inspiration and unity that sometimes enables people to win out over cold and hunger.
The biggest winners, the coal corporations excepted, are medical insurance outfits like Blue Cross. One of the most disheartening aspects of the coal miners' defeat is the final destruction of their once quite remarkable health program. The hospitals that were part of the program have long since been sold off, but the clinics, the heart of the union's preventive medicine system, were operating until now.
The new contract destroys not only the clinics but a unique health approach for the workers and their families in an industry that needs it most urgently. The loss isn't the coal miners' alone; their defunct program was serving as an important guide and study model for all who are interested in keeping people healthy rather than treating disease.
The president and some of his key people also have lost. There are many people who no longer have respect for their knowledge, judgement and capacity to keep clam and think straight when the pressure is on. Jimmy Carter is not anti-labor and was not anticoal miner. He broke the strike out of inadvertence because he believed there was a national emergency when there was none and because his handlers told him he was behind on points in the polls and had to score a knockout. The ensuing punch landed on the weakest of accidental passers-by, the wounded and troubled mine workers union.
What has happened to the national emergency that was used to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act? Let Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger, surely one of the least gifted persons to advise a president since Ron Ziegler retired to private life, explain those predictions that millions would be total laid off their jobs unless the coal strike was settled tout de suite.
Since the United Mine Workers of America was begun 88 years ago, it has oscillated between great power and militant unity and such weakness that it has had to swallow the owners' coal dust while watching its members expire in terrible poverty. Based on its track record, as well as the grit and fidelity of its members, you can't count the union out, but the chances are we've seen the end of industrywide bargaining for awhile, the end of protracted and large scale coal strikes and the end of massive work stoppages - though not the end of strife in the coal fields.
The miners who were once the best compensated of industrial workers will be able to mark this new contract of theirs as a milestone in their path downward to join less well-paid workers. The only way that could be avoided is if the demand for coal would shoot up or the miners could grab effective economic control of their industry. The administration's energy program envisions a swing to coal away from oil but that would take time even if an able and effective man ran the Department of Energy instead of Schlesinger.
While the secretary sounds his grave chimes, a more powerful union might hope to save itself by shaping the coal industry. At one time or another this union has tried to do that in a number of ways but has always been thwarted by superior power, government intervention or the economics of reality. At one point in the late '40s the union tried to save jobs and salary levels in the face of a declining market by declaring a three-day week.
That didn't work so in the 1950s an attempt was made to go into the coal business, and the union becamse a surreptitious partner and banker for an industry short of investment capital. That was when the union organized the largest non-union coal company by becoming a controlling stockholder. It was in the same period the union tried to stabilize wages and prices by tying them to marketing agreements, but both management and labor were convicted of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act for their trouble. With the union's attempt at modern mercantilism now long since declared illegal, the union itself divided and prostrate and the government without a notion of how to remedy the mess it's made, the only practical course left is to let the oil companies buy up the coal fields as they so dearly want to do.