Bargainers on a new nationwide coal contract agreed yesterday to set aside a troublesome point temporarily and address other issues in an effort to negotiate an end to a two-week nationwide strike.
The decision came as comparative calm prevailed in the coalfields in contrast to the sporadic violence and vandalism reported since the United Mine Workers union went on strike on Dec. 6.
Union President Arnold Miller was present for a bargaining season in Washington yesterday afternoon for the first time in a week.
"We've been talking all day," he said as he left. "We've been discussing every aspect of the bargaining itself."
Joseph P. Brennan, chief negotiator for the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, sidestepped a question of whether progress was made during the day's discussion.
"It depends on how you define it," he said.
Sources close to the talks said negotiators agreed to set up three subcommittees would begin meeting or what issues they would discuss."
The decision came after bargainers were unable to resolve a sticky question oof contract language on one point, the sources said.
Negotiators reportedly reached 9 tentative agreement earlier to require miners taking part in wildcat strikes to pay the union's benefit funds for the money lost through their absence. The funds are paid by industry on the basis of coal mined and hours worked.
Sources say bargainers have been unable, despite repeated attempts, to work out the exact language of the provision. One source described the disagreement as "a lawyers' dispute," and industry attorney Thomas Whyte and union lawyer Harrison Combs have met without others present at least once in an unsuccessful effort to find agreement.
Miller, meanwhile, sounded a pessimistic note in an interview with the Charleston Dail Mail.
He said he was now encouraged over prospects of a quick end to the strike which has idled 160,000 UMW members and an uncountable number of nonunion miners and employees in related fields.
Asked if a new contract could be ready for ratifcation by the end of the month, Miller said, "I think we've lost two weeks. I'm not particularly encouraged.
"Under the union's ratification process, it will take 10 days to approve a new contract after the negotiators reach agreement.