The United Mine Workers' bargaining council emphatically rejected a proposed settlement of the 69-day-old coal strike yesterday and told union negotiators to start bargaining again from the scratch.
The 30-to-6 decision - a formal affirmation of an earlier straw vote - destroyed any remaining hope that the walkout by 160,000 UMW members might end before inflicting serious hardship on heavily coal-dependent regions of Appalachia and the Mid-west.
There was no immediate indication when talks might resume or how long they might take once they start. UMW President Arnold Miller formally asked the Bituminous Coal Operators Association for a resumption of negotiations shortly after the council's vote, but a BCOA source said late yesterday the association was still "considering its options."
It took four months to produce the agreement that the 39-member council, composed of the union's top national and regional officers, rejected yesterday after 45 minutes of discussion. Both sides will be under pressure to wrap it up more quickly this time, even after the bargaining council approves a settlement, it would take a month or more to win rank-and-file ratification and bring the shut-down mines back into operation.
The council vote, although expected, was a stunning defeat for Miller, under whose five-year stewardship the union has moved from authoritarian rule to near-anarchy marked by uncontrollable wildcast strikes, benefit funds insolvency, bitter political infighting and now the longest strike in the union's history. Miller led the bargaining team that negotiated the proposed contract and pressed for its acceptance by the council, accusing opponents of sabotaging it for political reasons.
The rejected contract would have increased miners's total compensation by nearly 37 percent over three years, an increase Miller characterized as the largest union settlement in the last two years, larger than steel, autos or communications.
But it also included labor stability, cost control and production stimulus measures - including penalties for wildcat strikes, an end to automatic cost-of-living increases and revamping of benefits financing - that provoked strong opposition.
Under the proposal, wildcat strikers would have to repay the benefits funds to make up for losses up to $200 a month, with benefits cut off after 10 days. Strike instigators could be fired. Coal companies would gradually take over administration of benefits now handled by independent trustees. Benefits would be guaranteed, which they are not now, but miners would have to pay deductibles for health care.
UMW Vice President Sam Church told reporters that the council found the wage proposals, under which average hourly pay woula rise from $7.80 to $10.15 by 1981, to be "generally acceptable."
But Harrison Combs, UMW general counsel, made it clear that the contract as a whole, rather than specific items, was rejected.
"The concept of the rejection was that we start over [at the bargaining table]," said Combs. "This was a package deal." Asked if this meant going "back to square one," Combs replied, "That is correct."
Some members said the council favored going back to the general outlines of the recently expired contract and other proposals that include a right to strike over local grievances, thus resurrecting issues that industry had adamantly rejected.
Miller had described the proposed settlement as the best that the union could get when he submitted a summary of its terms to the council recessed until it could see specific language. But when Miller was ready to submit the full contract on Friday, several hundred angry miners congregated outside the UMW headquarters, sending Miller into seclusion and preventing the council from doing anything more than signaling its opposition with an unofficial 33-to-3 straw vote.
BCOA President Joseph P. Brennan issued a statement last yesterday recalling that Labor Secretary Ray Marshall had called the pact "a fair contract, genuinely good for both parties" and Brennan added:
"We are appalled at the action of the bargaining council in rejecting this agreement which will make coal miners the highest paid industrial workers, guarantee their health and retirement benefits, begin the process of restoring labor stability to the coalfield and return productivity growth to the coal industry."
Inability to reach a national coal contract agreement could lead to increased pressure for intervention by the Carter administration or a breakup of national coal bargaining leading to regional or local settlements.
John Samuels, research director for the 20,000 member UMW District 12 in Illinois, said one-third of the district's local presidents have sent telegrams urging District 12 to negotiate its own contract. "Their feeling is they could do better on a district basis," he said.
President Carter has ordered stop-gap measures to minimize hardships caused by the strike, including plans for transfer of coal from surplus to shortage areas, but thus far is opposed to seeking a back-to-work injunction under the Taft-Hartley Act. One reason is that injunctions in coal strikes have been ineffective because miners don't obey them.
Asked whether government action could force a quick end to the strike, Donald Lawley, a UMW executive board member representing Oklahoma and Arkansas, put it this way: "The government might be able to plow peanuts, but they sure in hell ain't gonna mine no coal."