Coal mine operators agreed yesterday to discuss medical benefit cutbacks with United Mine Workers leaders but held out little hope for a speedy resolution of the dispute that has idled thousands of miners for nine weeks.
An estimated 30,000 Appalachian miners remained off the job but news services reported no repetition of the violence that erupted between protestors and work-bound miners in West Virginia Wednesday night.
Meanwhile, government officials in both Washington and Charleston, W. Va., indicated concern about the strikes. Labor Secretary Ray Marshall interrupted a vacation to meet with UMW President Arnold Miller, and Gov. Jay Rockefeller kept up pressure for early negotiations on renewal of the UMW's existing contract, which expires Dec. 6.
In response to bit from Miller, the Bituminous Coal Operators Association said it would talk about the benefits dispute but would stick by its earlier refusal to reallocate pension fund royalties to the depleted health fund.
UMW leaders, in issuing a 60-day back-to-work order last Monday, demanded such a reallocation to permit restoration of full medical benefits; these were cut two months ago to keep the health fund from going broke. BCOA contends that the crisis was caused by wildcat strikes in the first place and insists that reallocation would merely condone the strikes, as well as risk violation of federal pension laws.
A BCOA spokesman said the proper place" for resolution of the reallocation issue is the contract talks, which have not yet started.