AFTER MORE THAN two months, the coal strike seems to be moving toward an end. Or at least reasonable people have to hope that it is. The mountainous stocks of coal with which the utilities began the winter have now been heavily depleted. In the coal counties of Appalachia, new hardships and deprivations have been added to all the long-standing ones. The logic of this strike was dubious from the beginning. By now, every consideration presses toward the settlement that is taking shape. But a strike is a bit like a war: It is easier to start one than to end it. The chief impediment at this point is the deep suspicion and sense of confusion within the union itself.
The money issues have been, from the beginning, secondary. Wage and benefit agreements have apparently been worked out, promising the miners an increase of nearly 37 percent over the next three years. That's hardly in line with President Carter's attempts to hold down inflation. But the administration is inclined - with good justification - to regard the miners as a special case. Aside from any other consideration, the national interest in expanding coal production requires, for the first time in a century, attracting more people into the mines. The arguments over money are the simple ones in these negotiations.
The hard ones all have to do with wildcat striking and the enforcement of contract provisions. In its present state, the United Mine Workers as a union is very different from the disciplined and strongly led automobile workers or steel workers. The miners went through years of enlightened despotism under John L. Lewis, followed by authoritarian decadence under his successors, in turn followed by the present internal chaos and anarchy under Arnold Miller. As for the industry, a good many of the coal companies still follow a peculiarly heavy-handed tradition of labor relations that elsewhere went out of style a generation ago.
The companies' chief interest in this contract is to end the epidemic of wildcat strikes that afflicted them and disrupted production throughout last year.The union, as an organization, presumably shares that interest. But the miners remain deeply distrustful of both companies and their own leadership. The miners believe that the wildcat strike is their only weapon to enforce the contract provisions, and they are hostile to any attempt to take it away from them.
Their version is that the companies keep trying to whittle down, in the daily operation of the mines, the concessions that the industry has made at the bargaining table. Miners claim that their union has not been effective in protecting them through the normal and legal avenues of appeal and adjudication. That is why this winter's contract negotiations have proved exceptionally difficult. It's a matter of persuading people that they will have access to a fair and effective system for settling disputes. The union members are unwilling to take anything on faith, even from their own representatives, and they are currently holding up the present tentative agreement for meticulous scrutiny. If it were only dollars and cents at stake, the differences could be reconciled quickly. But building trust takes longer.