The White House announced yesterday it will take "definitive" action this week to end the 76-day-old coal strike - a process that could result in a back-to-work injunction, government seizure of the mines or binding arbitration of the dispute.
Presidential press secretary Jody Powell did not disclose what course the administration will follow, but officials indicated action will be taken this week
While officials denied that the announcement amounted simply to more jawboning to force the striking United Mine Workers and the coal industry to reach a negotiated settlement, Powell held out the possibility that government intervention could be aborted if a voluntary agreement suddenly came into sight.
"We hope that as this process proceeds, both parties will seriously reflect on the unfortunate consequences of the breakdown of this collective-bargaining process," Powell said.
The announcement followed a 3 1/2 hour meeting of Labor Secretary Ray Marshall and other top administration officials, the second meeting in two days on what the govenment can do in light of what officials have described as the collapse of bargaining between the UMW and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, the industry's bargaining group.
Carter tentatively agreed to a series of options on Saturday, officials said, and yesterday's meeting was held to confirm these plans after the UMW and the coal operators had been given one more chance to make a final try for a settlement.
Powell said the White House is beginning immediately to consult with congressional leaders on its plans.
Only two of the three previously mentioned administration option involve congressional action. They are temporary federal seizure and operation of the struck mines under wages, working conditions and profits set by the government, and the appointment of third-party arbitrators to resolve contract issues still in dispute, including industry demands for curbs on wildcat strikes.
But officials said this did not rule out invoking the Taff-Hartley Act, under which the president can seek an unjunction in federal court toorder the 160,000 strikers back to work for an 80-day cooling-off-period.
Officials said other options could not be ruled out, but it was not immediately clear what others would be sifficiently strong to end the strike.
The administration has been reluctant to follow any of these three courses because all involve problems. Miners historicall have defied back-to-work orders and UMW President Arnold Miller warned yesterday in a television interview that an injunction would create "all kinds of chaos and the possibility of bloodshed" in the coal fields.
Because congressional approval would be required for temporary seizure of the mines or binding arbitration, these options invite delay and political controversy at a time when the administration is pushing other major legislation in Congress.
After initially taking a hands-off policy toward the dispute, Carter plunged into it last week by summoning both sides to resume negotiations in the White House after the union's bargaining council rejected a tentative settlement that would have increased the minders' compensation by nearly 37 percent over three years and given industry many of the weapons it wanted to force greater labor stability in the strike-plagued coal fields.
But the talks collapsed late Friday and, according to Powell, it became "clear we can wait no longer to initiate the process for resolving this matter by other means."
As the govenment made its move, efforts were also under way by the UMW to reach local contract settlements with two large non-BCOA coal companies - a step that could bring pressure on the 130-company BCOA to reach a settlement. The companies are the Pittsburgh and Midway, a subsidiary of Gulf Oil, and the Ziegler Coal Co., a subsidiary of Houston Natural Gas. Together they have about 1,800 of the roughly 8,000 UMW members who wkork for non-BCOA companies.
Such settlements, if reached quickly, could help ease the rapidly escalating coal shortage that is threatening power cutbacks and job layoffs in a number of Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic states, but the volume of coal involved is small compared to BCOA's production - roughly one-half the nation's supplies.
These companies normally follow the BCOA settlement. If one settled quickly, the agreement could become a guide for a national settlement or, some observers suggest, could trigger a breakup of the national coal bargainning structure if either the UMW or the BCOA were to declare a negotiating impasse.
The UMW's Miller said on "Meet the Press" (NBC, WRC) earlier yesterday that a company-by-company settlement may be the "only alternative" left to reach a negotiated settlement, although he said it would not be to the advantage of the union, the coal operators or the country as a whole. "We're very close to being in the position where that may be the route we'll go." he added.
Charging the BCOA with being "stubborn and obstinate" in its refusal to meet union demands for modification of the rejected tentative settlement, Miller said, "If BCOA doesn't want to bargain in good faith, then we'll have to bargain where we can."
Meanwhile, West Virginia Governor John D.Rockefeller IV said he believed that a pattern of independent settlements may emerge and put "tremendous pressure, I hope, on the coal operators and the union to understand that the differences they have are not that great."
Said Rockefeller: "If it is not settled by the BCOA, it will be settled by the independents."
he predicted that the current strike and conflicting interests within BCOA, which is controlled by steel, oil, independent coal companies and large conglomerates, will lead to an end to nationwide coal bargaining.
Rockefeller, questioned on the interview program "Face the Nation" (CBS, WTOP), blamed both sides for the stalemate, and said it's time to "lock up" the bargainers and "just keep them talking."
He said miners are unlikely to go back to work under a Taff-Hartley injunction or government seizure of the mines, least of all under an injunction, and said the government was correct to keep up pressure for a negotiated settlement. He said this was the only way to assure full-scale resumption of coal production.