Feuding leaders of the United Mine Workers raised the possibility of a nationwide coal strike today by giving national union recognition to a dispute over absenteeism in Ohio coal mines.
The apparently unprecedented move by the union's international executive board was taken over the strong objections of UMW President Arnold Miller, who is embroiled in a bitter three-way re-election fight. His opponents. Lee Roy Patterson and Harry Patrick, favor the move, and the issue appears likely to dominate the remaining weeks of the campaign before the June 14 union election.
The issue came to a head afte a crackdown by coal companies on absenteeism and related problems in the mines, promoting a series of wildcat strikes that have closed mines employing an estimated 16,000 workers in Ohio's UMW District 6.
Responding to an appeal from a delegation of Ohio miners, the UMW executive board voted 12 to 8 to declare that the District 6 dispute was "of national scope" - a step that union officials say has never before been taken in dealing with a local dispute.
According to union officials, this means the District 6 problem must be settled through industry-wide collective bargaining between top UMW leaders and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, which bargains for the coal industry, rather than through local grievence procedures. This raises the possibility of a nationwide strike if an impasse is reached.
"If someone don't do something soon, there'll be a nationwide strike in 60 days," said James. A Russell, a District 6 board member and spokesman for the protesting miners.
Asked what he will do to carry out the board's position. Miller said, "I don't know what I'll do about it. I've got constitutional authority and fiduciary responsibilities to think about." He protested during the meeting that the move might be illegal and invite damage suits against the union.