OVER ON the CLover Fork of the Cumberland River in the far southeastern corner of Kentucky where Mickey Messer mines coal for the Eastover Mining Co., the men are worried about the union they fought for 13 months to get.

"Everyone is puzzled. Everyone's wondering what the hell is going on in the international," declared Messer, a big bear of a man. "Every time you pick up a paper down here someone is calling someone else a name."

"That don't help the rank-and-file coal miner one bit," he continues in his heavy hill accent. "All they're doing is sitting up there fighting among themselves. You can't run a family that way. And that's no way to run a union."

It would be hard to find a man anywhere who believes more passionately in a labor union than Mickey Messer. For more than a year, as president of the United Mine Workers Union Local 1974, he led a strike at Eastover's Brookside mine in one of the nation's most bittern union organizing drives in recent history. His life was threatened, his clapboard home shot into, the windshield on his pickup truck shattered. The company, a subsidiary of Duke Power Co., agree to a settlement only after the UMW had spend $1.6 million on the strike and a 24-year-old miner was shot and killed in a strike-related incident.

But now the union is in trouble. Its president, Arnold R. Miller, locked in a three-way race for politcial survival, is under constant attack. His reform leadership, which swept the corrupt regime of W. A. (Tony) Boyle out of office, is split and in disarray. Many of the reformers, angry and disillusioned, have quit key union jobs. Others have been fired. Infighting has paralyzed many union programs, and anti-Miller forces charge Miller with extravagant financial practices. Miller is increasingly embattled and embittered, so concerned that history has mistreated him that he and a young West Virginia journalist are hastily writing a biography to set the record straight.

Almost every week brings a new crisis, new charges by once-close aides that Miller has developed a severe case of paranoia. "Arnold has gotten to the point of seeing an enemy under every bed. He's swinging wildly at everyone," one aide said last week. "The union is in dead water until after the election in June. Nothing significant is going to get done until then."

A siege atmosphere reminiscent of the Boyle days has set in at the UMW headquarters in Washington. Miller has changed all the locks in the building, hired new security guards, fired his long-time press secretary and set up strict travel and work rules. All press queries must be referred directly to the president. All union travel plans must pass over his desk. All employees must signin and out as they enter and leave work.

When Miller became suspicious that a seretary was plotting political intrigue with UMW secretary-treasurer Harry Patrick, he ordered her door removed. (It has since bee replaced.) When the president's top assistant slugged one of his former cconfidantes over a disputed news leak last month, Miller refused to criticize his assistant. Instead, a week after the incident, he asked the alleged assailant, Sam Church, a former Boyle supporter, to run for union vice president on the Miller ticket.

All hope that unity could be restores ended Thursday when Patrick announced he will run against Miller next June, setting up a three-way race that might throw the election to former Boyle loyalists. Miller, Patrick's running mate Mike Tamton said, had made the union "the laughing stock of the labor movement."

The old guard of the labor movement could hardly be more pleased. It has little use for democracy or upstart reformers. George Meany made clear what he thought of Arnold Miller and his mine workers on public radio last year: "I don't think coal miners are any better off than they were three years ago."

It may be, however, too early to draw any "big message" for the era of union reform that it was once thought the UMW might usher in. The era never really developed. But each year a few contested elections pop up. The current one is in the huge United Steelworkers union where reform candidates Ed Sadlowski is challenging Lloyd McBride, a supporter of retiring president I.W. Abel.

There are carryovers between the steel and coal workers. Sadlowshi's lawyer is Joseph I. Raub Jr., the Washington liberal who won crucial battles for the miners. His campaign manager is Ed James, who also managed Miller's campaign. But unlike Miller or any of the UMW reformers. Sadlowski and McBride are both experienced as area labor leaders. They've learned about the union from the inside. A Different Breed

WHAT'S WRONG with the UMW is a story of human tragedy as well as a story about the difficulty of union reform. Its great irony is that the union's current problems obscure the real changes the reformers have made. For, under the Miller regime, the UMW has changed from one of the nation's most dictatorial unions to one of the most democratic. It has opened up its elections, Beefed up its organizating, mine safety and lobbying efforts, won a hefty 54 per cent increase in benefits at the bargaining table, adopted a model constitution, opened up communications with its members and brought hundreds of young miners into its fold.

But hard questions remain. Have the lives of miners improved? And has the reform movement lived up to its promise and expectations.?

The plight of the coal miner is a familiar one. To most of the nation, he is a classic underdog, a worker in the nation's most dangerous, unappealing industry, a resident of a remote part of the country scarred by poverty and environmental ruin. But this ignores the fact that, in his own community, he is looked on as a highly paid worker, a man somewhat apart from others who must depend on his fellow miners for his personal safety every day.

"A coal miner is a different breed of man," explaines Raymond Wright, a retired miner. "He works hard. He works on his belly. He eats on his belly. He doesn't eat lunch at some Holiday Inn [WORD ILLEGIBLE] fancy restaurant like other people. One coal miner can always communicate with another. He knows what it means when you say, "That's not pepper on the lettuce, it's coal dust." No, a coal miner doesn't think he's any better than anyone else, but on one's any better than him."

There is something for all of us in the story of Arnold Miller, coal miner. Something about the frailty of the human condition, friendship about human limitations, vanity and overblown hopes.

Miller, unlike most of us, had it all for a brief moment, but he blew it. He had his brass ring, but he started reading his press clippings and let it slip through his fingers.

There was no magic moment when it happened. His hold simply eroded gradually, day by day. Miller faced conflict from the day he took office, and by late 1975 open warfare broke out each time the union's executive board met. At first, Miller dealt with it. But by the time the union met in convention last fall in Cincinnati, he had largely lost control.

It was loud, chaotic and full of dissent. Factional fights broke out all over the place. Miller emerged a bitter and confused man.

The easy explanation is that what happened to Miller was bound to happen when he was catapulted from a relatively unknows coal miner to a national figure almost overnight. There's truth to that. And Miller is as much victim as anything.

But this ignores the fact that Miller is an intelligent, well-intentioned man who understands the needs of coal miners from first-hand experience and who surrounded himself with an exceptional staff. In some ways, he's a natural leader. He can snow liberals witht he best of them. When he throws away his prepared speeches, he can rouse union meetings with his oratory. Maybe be just didn't try hard enough.

"It was all lying there waiting for him to pick up. He could have been not only a great labor leader, he could have been a tremendous force for good in this country, another Martin Luther King," one former aide said impassionedly. "And here he let it all get away, just because he didn't want to stand up and be counted. It's a failure of character more than anything else."

That judgement is unduly harsh. Millers, as he has done so many times fore, amy very well pull this one out of the bag. He support among miners shouldn't be underestimated. He must be considered the favorite for re-election. But at what price. Is power worth the loss of friendship? Is it worth ridicule? Or bitterness? Or divisiveness?

The real casually is Miller himself. He has lost many of his friends and oldest supporters. He is constantly under attack. His friends seen an increasingly irrational pattern of behavior developing. "I'm not a doctor so I can't say if he's sick or not. What I can say is unfortunately he reminds me of Hitler in his last days when he gathered all his lieutenatns together in the bunker," Miller's former ally, union secretary-treasurer Patrick, said Thursday in Charleston, W. Va. "I'm sorty to see what's happened to him. I think it's very obvious to members of this union, especially to those who've seen him in person lately, that something is very, very wrong." Expending Moral Capital

IT IS HARD to exaggerate the extent to which Miller and his rag-tag Miners for Democracy caught the nation's fancy when they came to Washington in 1972, what hopes they brought coal miners and union reformers around the country.

They invited myth-making, a short commodity in that year of Watergate and the re-election of Richard Nixon. They cut their own salaries, auctioned off the union's Cadillac limousines, proclaimed a new day for the coal miner.

Here was a genuine grass-roots reform movement that worked, one that had overthorwn an entrenched union machine so corrupt that its president, Tony Boyle, would later go to jail for plotting the murder of union insurgent Joseph "Jock" Yablonski, his wife and daughter.

Miller was a hot property a coal miner, barely three years out of the pits, who had become president of a once-great union. He could become a power in Democratic Party politics, a leader in union reform, one former aide said. "He had enough moral capital built up to last a lifetime."

Miller even looks the part, broad-shouldered, with thick arms and a heavy limp to his walk. "He made me feel America still worked," Anna Hamilton, a neighbor who has known Miller all his life, said lalst week. "He was a good person and honest. And that's a whole lot to say about anybody in this day and age."

But the danger should have been clear from the start. "You just don't go out and get a guy off the streets and put him in a job like with no experience," said Lee Roy Patterson, long one of Miller's harshest critics and now an opponent for the union presidency. "He didn't have any knowledge or experience to administer a big organization. The union has been in one continuous nightmare since his election." The Genuine Revolt

ACTUALLY, there was little opportunity to gain experience prior to 1972. For 50 years the union was run as a one-man dictatorship by Johns L. Lewis and successors. Dissent was brutally squashed. All area-wide officers in 20 of the union's 25 geographic districts were appointed. Not a single miner in West Virginia or Kentucky, now the two largest coal-producing states, voted for district officers.

That Arnoled Ray Miller rose to the UMW presidency was largely an accident of history. He was born, raised and spend most of his life in a tiny coal camp town south of Charleston. The son and grandson of coal miners, he went to work in the mines after he finished ninth grade and left only to go to war. He was injured in the Normandy invasion, his face disfigured, his left eat shot off. A soft-spoken man with ruggedly handsome features, he was largely unknown outside his home coal camp of Ohley on Cabin Creek until he and a group of other miners led a fight for black lung compensation in the 1969 state legislature. About that time he went to work for Design for Rural Action, a federally funded community action group that encouraged his service as president of the West Virginia Black Lung Association.

"Arnold started wearing a tie and getting a lot of good press," one associate from those days recalls. "Up until that time he really was just one of a number of miners activ ein the fight."

On Dec. 31, 1969, sometime after midnight, three union-paid assassins crept into the second floor of a large fieldstone house at the end of a lonely lane near Clarksville, Pa. One of them fired a .38 caliber slug into Charlotte Yablonski's head. The second gunman shot her father, Jock Yablonski, as he reached for a double-barreled shotgun he kept near his bed. His wife, Margaret, was shot twice. After the funeral, a group of miners, who had supported Yablonski's bid to unseat Boyle in the elction just one month before, met in a church basement with Washington attorney Rauh and formed what would eventually become Miners for Democracy. Miller was not among the group, but when the MFD met in a convention at Wheeling, W. Va., two years later, he became the group's compromise candidate for union president.

Mike Trbovich, a Pennsylvania miner who lived near Yablonski and had managed his campaign, had gone to Wheeling thinking he would be come the presidential candidate, but he was outmaneuvered by Miller forces. "Arnold was the most winnable candidate," Washington lawyer Clarice Feldman recalls. "IN substantial parts of the coal country it was felt there was a strong feeling against Eastern Europeans. Also miners didn't want to vote for anyone who sounded like a radical and Mike tended to sound like a firebrand. Then Arnold was from West Virginia and had strong identification with the black lung movement."

Trbovich was picked for vice president, Patrick for secretary-treasurer. Each of the three had spent most of his life in the mines. None had graduated from high school, none had served in union office above the local level.

"These were the guys with the most experience. No one else had any. This was the only true rank-and-file revolt in history," says attorney Rauh, who represented both Yablonski and Miller in a series of crucial court contests. "If Jock Yablonski hadn't been killed, this [current trouble], never would have happened. Jock had been an insider. He knew how things worked. He would have been a more traditional unionists."

Rauh paused, then added: "To a degree, Miller has been fighting Jock Yablonski's ghost even since. He's fighting his lack of experience. He's fighting his feeling that history hasn't given him his due." A Latter-Day Caesar?

MILLER RESENTS any suggestion that anybody but the miners put him in his job. "I riaked my life in '72 and '69. There are very few people who are ambitious today who would have gone through what I did back then," he declared last week. "No one in the history of this union has been criticized more by people who have no business criticizing."

Miller sees himself as a latter-day Julius Caesar surrounded by Brutuses. He lashes out at his fellow union officers, his friends and the young reformers who helped catapult him into office and long served as his closest aides.

"I'm probably the most patient, tolerant president this union has ever had. But my patience has run out. I had a number of people who wanted to tell me what to do. They wanted to run the union. I think some of them misconstrued friendship for a soft sport that they could take advantage of. I got tired of taking the blame for their mistakes." Later he added. "The problems I have are not with the membership, it's with the elected officials and with the staff. There are people who got involved in the reform movement who didn't want ot promote change, they wanted to change positions. A few more forgot where they came from."

An entirely different picture emerges from former Key Miller associates. It's is a picture of a leader unwilling to confront conflict, a man who avoided homework on crucial issues, alienated his political enemies and turned on his friends.

"He just wasn't around when the time came for tough decisions," recalls Edgar James, who managed Miller's campaign and became one of his assistants in Washington. "He'd disappear, or call in and not leave a number. I know it's hard to believe, but he'd just duck out and stay away for days and weeks. The situation eroded. People got tired of propping him up. He seemed to avoid controversy."

Last fall, for instance, he stood aside when the union convention went on record against federal strip mining control, despite his long-time support of such measures, and he didn't raise a whisper when the Senate successfully stalled passage of black lung legislation wanted desperately by the UMW.

Last month, he sat back without acting when Eastover Mining Co. laid off Mickey Messer and 75 other UMW miners at its Brookside mine, the highly publicized linchpin of the union's organizing campaign the last three years, while the company kept members of the rival South Labor Union on the job at its nearby Highsplint mine. "Duke Power is trying to beat us again," secretary-treasurer Patrick said. "They wouldn't dare try it if we were united and strong."

But nothing draws harsher criticism than Miller's handling of the 1974 contract negotiations and a series of wildcat strikes that paralyzed the coal industry the last two summers. For when push comes to shove, a labor leader is ultimately judged on what he delivers to the pocketbook.

The contract was negotiated during the industry's biggest boom year. Coal prices, the union claimed, were up 61 per cent; profits, up 181 per cent. Miller called it "the fastest contract in history." It provided a 10 per cent wage hike the first year, added pension benefits and the first sick leave time for miners in their history. But many insiders felt the coal industry would have gone as much as 5 per cent higher on wages.

Even Miller loyalists, like ROn Hunt, who belongs to the union president's home local, voted against the contract. Others, like 45-year-old Larry young, supported it reluctantly, feeling "it was shoved down our throats."

"It sounded like a good contract. we went from $40 a day then to something like $58.90 a day now and everybody around here talks about coal miners making so much money and being radical," Young said. "But I go 7 miles underground every day, and work in mud up to my eyeballs. And everyone else still makes more than I do. The plumbers make more than we do, the teamsters do, the auto workers do, the steel workers do, and hell, even loading dock workers at Kroger's [grocery] make more money than coal miners and we've got the most dangerous jobs in the country."

For the record, UMW miners make the equivalent of $7.36 an hour, auto workers $6.80, construction laborers $7.65 and plumbers $8.70. The serious injury rate in coal mines is three times the national average of all industries, and there are indications that the rate is higher than usually reported, and on the increase. There were 8,278 fatal or disabling injuries in the first nine months of 1976, almost 2,000 more than in the same period the previous year. In the first nine months of 1976, 87 men died in mines. Another 77 men died each week of black lung disease, according to the union. I Worked Hard for Him"

IT'S BEEN a cold, frastrating winter for Clifford Martin, a mine safety committeeman from near Logan, W. Va. A week ago, he was fired from his job after he recommended miners withdraw from the Buffalo Mining Company's No. 5-A mine because of what he considered a safety hazard. He was reinstated by a federal judge, but he says the incident carries a leadership lesson for Arnold Miller. "You've got to stick your neck out for miners," he said. "You've got to be willing to make a mistake."

Martin's Local 8454 is one of dozens in West Virginia under permanent injunction for wildcat strikes over union grievances, safety violations and other issues. The local has been fined $30,000, its president jailed, and Martin himself has been hauled into court eight times. The unjunctions have led to further wildcat strikes which have spread across the coalfields. The issue, as Martin and other miners see it, is that coal companies bypass bargaining with local union officials over the grievances and take their cases into federal courts instead.

The strikes are one of the reasons Martin became disillusioned with Arnold Miller. "Miller knew the problem, but he didn't want to do anything about it," he said. "I had a lot of hope in Arnold Miller. I worked hard for him in 1972. But now I don't think we can make it under him. He doesn't have the fight in him."