What if they gave a coal strike and nobody cared?

Not long ago, when John L. Lewis ruled the United Mine Workers, the very threat of a coal strike was tantamount to a national emergency. Two Presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, actually seized the mines to assure continued production and prevent major disruptions of the economy.

Now another nationwide UMW strike is considered virtually inevitable on Dec. 6, but no panic buttons are being pushed.

One reason is that utilities and other coal users have stockpiled huge amounts of coal in anticipation of the strike. And the other, equally important, is that Lewis' old union now mines only about half the nation's coal.

Although it is generally agreed that an agreement would have to be reached by late this week to permit time for rank-and-file ratification by the strike deadline, the negotiators themselves - having met a total of 26 hours over the past 43 days - took off for a long weekend.

The country, it appears, has adjusted to the idea of doing without the services of the UMW for a while. Government and industry officials are saying it would be about three months before the nation's energy supplies would be seriously affected, although the impact could be felt sooner in such coal states as West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

For utilities, which use about three-fourths of all domestically produced coal, the National Coal Association estimates a supply of more than 90 days: a stockpile of about 133 million tons as opposed to 114 million tons at this time last year.

For the steel industry, which uses more than half the rest of total coal supply, the American Iron and Steel Institute estimates that existing supplies for most plants may last until April or even May, although some plants may face shortages sooner.

Another reason for the diminished national impact of a UMW strike is the diminished share of total coal tonnage that UMW miners are digging. Although estimates of the UMW's share of coal production vary widely, it has shrunk sharply in just three years: from nearly 70 per cent to little over 50 per cent, according to one widely accepted estimate.

"It would be serious and unfortunate if we had a strike," said Labor Secretary Ray Marshall earlier this month, "but it wouldn't be a national emergency." Marshall reiterated the no-emergency assessment Friday, noting that stockpiles are in "good shapes" and expressing confidence that a strike would end before the stockpiles are exhausted.

A strike has been considered a near-inevitability since long before contract renewal talks began Oct. 6 between the UMW and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, the bargaining group for most of the unionized coal industry, about 130 companies in all.

Months of bitter bloodletting within the union, a summer-long wave of wild-cat strikes and a resulting drain on the miner's health and retirement funds contributed to the drawing of hardline positions even before the bargainers got the table in a sixth-floor suite of rooms at the Capitol Hilton Hotel in downtown Washington.

It took a month to get down to serious bargaining and no major issues have been resolved, according to BCOA and union sources.

BCOA officials reported some progress over the last couple of days, but UMW President Arnold Miller issued a statement Friday discounting the operator's assessment and reiterating his warning of a strike.

Miller accused BCOA of failing to bargain "in good faith" and added:

"If they do not [bargain in good faith], I think a national coal strike will all its tragic implications for our members, other workers and the consuming public, is inevitable. If there is to be a strike, and the actions of the BCOA this week convinces me they want to strike, I think it will be a long and bitter strike."

Indeed it is the miners themselves - about 277,000 UMW members and 800,000 beneficiaries of the union's medical and pension plans - who will face most of the suffering from a strike.

The funds, which are financed by royalties (employer contributions) based on hours worked and tonnage mined, hit critical low points during the 10 weeks of summertime wildcat strikes. Medical benefits were cut back severely once and the strikes, which involved up to about half the union's working members, stopped just in time to avoid further reductions.

Although production has boomed since the miners went back to work, breaking all records during the last few weeks, the union's health and pension funds have not recovered.

Barbara Moldauer, spokeman for the funds, said yesterday that both health and pension payments may have to be suspended - in whole or in part - when production stops.

Health payments, including death benefits, may be paid "on a limited basis for a limited time or maybe not at all," she said.

The pension fund from which current retirees are paid will not have enough money to pay January benefits and could pay partial pensions or none at all for the month, Moldauer added. The possibility of relief from the federal government is unclear, and getting a loan is unlikely under the circumstances, she said.

In light of this, many observers question how long the union can sustain a strike. However, UMW leaders are spreading the word that the union can take a strike as long as necessary to win its basic demands, which include at least one provision that the operators have vowed never to accept. "If they think the UMW is weak, by God, wait till Dec. 6 and they'll find out," Miller was quoted as saying recently.

Probably the most difficult issue is the union's demand for a "limited" right to strike over local issues, by majority vote at each mine. The operators say this would legitimize wildcats and reject it totally, insisting instead on guarantees of "stability" in production.

The operators' proposals include docking the pay of miners who are involved in wildcat strikes and requiring them to reimburse the benefits funds for money lost because of unauthorized work stoppages.

Restoration of health benefits and guaranteed levels of payment for the future is another key union demand.