President Carter yesterday called on the coal industry and stiking United Mine Workers members to resume negotiations immediately at the White House and threatened "stronger mesures" if that effort fails.
Pressured increasingly to act because of dwindling coal stock piles in some Eastern and Midwestern states. Carter made it clear he may order the 160,000 striking miners back to work if the walkout isn't ended soon.
"That's one of the options, yes," Carter said when asked if he might invoke the Taft-Hartley Act seek an injuctuon ordering the strikers back to work for an 80-day cooling off period.
UMW President Arnold Miller quickly acceded to Carter's request, but the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, the industry bargaining group, declined immediate comment.
Carter's action, which followed weeks of White House refusal to intervene directly in the long, bitter coal dispute, apparently caught coal industry leaders by surprise.
Only one hour before he announced the administration drive to end the strike, the BCOA issued a statement calling on the UMW bargaining council to reconsider a proposed settlement that it rejected 30 to 6 on Sunday.
Miller flatly rejected the industry's request for reconsideration but said "we stand ready to negotiate at any time - the sooner the better."
Carter's direct intervention in the 71-day-old strike - the nation's longest continuous coal strike - came as reports of heavy power cutbacks and imminent job layoffs came rolling into Washington. In Indiana the National Guard was called out to help usher coal convoys to utility plants. In Ohio a state of emergency was called and officials predicted job layoffs of up to 1.3 million workers by the end of the month.
Appearing in the White House press room to announce his intervention in the dispute, Carter said White House negotiations "must be viewed as a final opportunity" for the collective bargaining process to work.
"If it does not," he said, "then I will have no choice but to resort to stronger measures. . .
"I continue to support the collective bargaining process. However, the welfare of this country must be my overriding concern."
He said the coal strike is inflicting "continuing hardships on this country and also the miners, both active and retired." The strike, he said, "cannot be allowed to continue."
Press secretary Jody Powell said Carter expected both sides to begin negotiations in the Executive Office Building today. "We would certainly have every expectation that they would respond to a direct request from the president," Powell added.
Carter had described the request as "personal and most urgent."
However, shortly after Carter's announcement the BCOA withdrew from a meeting it had been expected to attend with Labor Secretary Ray Marshall. Marshall had been meeting alternately with coal industry officials and union leaders since Monday evening and had been planning to meet with both groups separately last night.
Carter said he had instructed Marshall to particpate directly in the negotiations and "give me a report at least daily on progress that is being made" to end the strike.
He also said he asked Attorney General Griffin B. Bell to "give me a complete assessment of the powers available ensure protection of life and property in these extraordinary circumstances."
The UMW has been on strike since Dec. 6, cutting off more than half of the nation's coal production, although the effects of the strike were not widely felt until recently and have been concentrated in about nine states in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions. Miners' pensions and health benefits have been cut off.
A tentative settlement was reached between union and company negotiating teams early last week. It would have raised miners' total compensation over three years by nearly 37 percent.
But the pact was rejected overwhelmingly by the union's bargaining council, composed of the union's top national and regional officials. Council approval is necessary before a contract can be submitted to rank-and-file members for ratification.
The council's objections centered on proposed fines and other disciplinary actions to control wildcat strikes, loss of automatic coost-of-living increases, deductibles for health care that was previously free, company takeover health and pension systems now run by independent trustees, and changes in holiday arrangements.
Miller rejected BCOA's request for reconsideration of the contract as "ridiculous" in light of the lopsided rejection vote. "The coal operators," he said, "are playing games with us and show a callous disregard for the national interest."
BCOA, on the other hand, noted that Marshall had called the proposed settlement a "fair contract, genuinely good for both sides" and predicted that the council would vote to approve it after more "fair and adequate consideration."
Carter's summoning of the negotiators to the White House was the first such presidential action since the administration of President Johnson, who frequently called in feuding parties in rail, airline and other labor disputes. Until now, the Carter administration stuck closely to a hands-off policy, prefering to let the collective-bargaining process work its will.
The administration had been particularly reluctant to talk of the Taft-Hartley Act because of the miners' habit of ignoring injunctions in the past. The act has been invoked three times in coal since its passage in 1947, most recently in 1950 when a long strike was settled only after President Truman asked Congress for legislation to permit government seizure and operation of the mines.
Carter's action yesterday represented a complete reversal of position in little more than 24 hours. On Monday Powell said White House negotiations would only be a public-relations gesture with short-term effects.
Yesterday's action followed an hour-long meeting between Carter, Marshall and Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger Jr. on how to deal with the strike, which was prompting louder and louder calls for presidential action and increasingly bleak news from the nation's industrial heartland.
In Indiana, where mandatory power cutbacks were ordered Monday, Gov. Otis R. Bowen activated 350 armed National Guardsmen to help state police escort coal truck convoys to utility plants. The convoys, led by 50 riot-trained state troopers, were dut to begin moving the coal shipments within 24 hours.
Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes declared a state of emergency there. The Ohio Edison Co. faces a 50 percent power cutback as of Feb. 21. Officials say the power reduction could affect the jobs of 750,000 workers by Feb. 21 and 1.3 million by Feb. 28.
In West Virginia, where mandatory power cutbacks are in effect, Gov. John D. Rockefeller IV put a freeze on state hiring, pay raises and most new equipment purchases because the coal shutdown has slashed state tax revenues.
Michigan officials said they would resist moving coal out of their state if it meant job layoffs there.
General Motors Corp., the nation's largest auto manufacturer, joined Ford and Chrysler in warning of imminent production curtailments that could idle hundreds of thousands of autoworkers over the next few weeks.