Top leaders of the United Mine Workers today ordered a temporary halt to a wildcat strike that has crippled Appalachian coal production for two months. Local union leaders representing the strikers promptly bowed to the order.
But the union's top officials threatened to call a nationwide coal strike in 60 days if cutbacks in miner's health benefits - the immediate cause of the work stoppages by as many as 85,000 miners in five states since mid-June - are not restored in the meantime.
Previous back-to-work orders have been ignored by the militant miners, but union leaders expressed confidence that this one would be heeded "It gets the men back to work and itbuys us some time," said one official.
The agreement came at the end of astormy six-hour meeting between UMW International Executive Board and officials of the Charleston-basedDistrict 17, the union's largest and most militantly pro-strike district.
UMW officials said after the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] meeting at the Daniel Boone [WORD ILLEGIBLE] here that the frequently divided executive board voted unanimously to order the strikers back to work for a 60-day period, during which the union would attempt to negotiate a settlement of the benefits dispute with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, the industry's bargaining arm.
If a settlement is not reached within the 60-day period. UMW officials said, the contract between the union and the association would be terminated and a nationwide coal strike would be called.
The 60 days would run until just six weeks before the three-year contract expires on Dec. 6. Even before the current wave of wildcat strikes, dissension within the faction-ridden UMW led many industry and government observers to predict that the union and coal operators could not agree on a new contract without a strike, possibly a protracted one.
About 200 representatives of District 17 met after the executive board adjourned and endorsed the back-to-work agreement with "minimal dissent," according to District President Jack Perry. A number of local union officials predicted the striking miners would begin returning to work tonight, although some expressed doubt that the strike threat would succeed in restoring the lost benefits.
The latest wave of wildcat strikes to hit the coal fields in the last several years was triggered when union-management trustees of the UMW health funds, facing deficits created in part by previous work stoppages, ordered medical benefit cutbacks that could cost miners and their families up to $500 a year for services that previously were free.
The union's health and pension-funds are financed by royalties from coal production and hence suffer when work is curtailed. Industry officials estimate the funds were losing $1 million a day at the height of the wildcat strikes, which idled roughly half the UMW's 175,000 working members.
The BCOA refused union requests to transfer royalties from a financially sound pension fund so the medical benefits could be restored, contending that such action would only encourage more wildcat strikes and jeopardize the pension fund's future solvency.
The funds are administered by independent trustees selected by the union and the coal operators, but both the UMW and BCOA would have to agree to any reallocation to restore the curtailed health benefits.
Today's strike threat appeared aimed at increasing the pressure on the BCOA to reallocate. A BCOA spokesman said the operators would have no comment until they received formal notification of the union's action.
There was some confusion over the authority invoked by the union to threaten a strike before the current contract expires. The executive board appeared to be relying on a contract clause permitting termination when a government agency intervenes. Several sources said the board was construing the trustees as a "government agency" because they operate under federal controls that are interpreted by the coal operators to inhibit reallocation of the royalties.