THE COAL STRIKE has created a peculiar situation for which neither labor law nor previous experience offers any guidance. The union has fallen into a state of anarchy. Authority within the United Mine Workers has collapsed. The law assumes that the spokesman for management and labor speak for the people whom they represent, and can be held responsible for those people's actions. But if the UMW's president, the hapless Arnold Miller, had any real control over the union's membership, it would have accepted the contract that he negotiated for them. Instead, the bargaining council repudiated the contract - and Mr. Miller with it. The Carter administration, having brought the barganing literally into the White House, is now groping for a way to deal with a union in which nobody appears to speak for anyone else.
There was a time, of course, when things were very different in the UMW. When John L. Lewis told the miners to strike, they struck. When he told them to work, they worked - with no delays, and with no questions. Congress enacted the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 after a year of challenges by Mr. Lewis to the president and the country. In writing it, Congress simply assumed that any union capable of creating a national emergency would have strong leadership that could be called to account for it.
But after Mr. Lewis, decay rapidly set in. Last weekend Tony Boyle was convicted, for the second time, of the murder in 1969 of Joseph Yablonsky, his wife and his daughter. Mr. Boyle was the president of the UMW, and Mr. Yablonsky was the man who challenged him in the union election that year. After Mr. Boyle came reform, and where there had been a dangerous concentration of power there currently is no power at all. In their present mood, the miners are only marginally less hostile to their own national leadership than to the mining companies.
That makes a court order, under the Taft-Hartley Act, a highly unpromising remedy. On whom would the court serve its order? Much the same thing can be said of binding arbitration. Working out a reasonable compromise would not be difficult, but enforcing it would be another matter.
Mr. Miller has suggested that perhaps the bargaining will break up into direct talks between local unions and the companies separately. That would mean abandoning, for all practical purposes, the UMW as anything more than a name. That Mr. Miller should publicly encourage this possibility is a concession of failure - but he is apparently approaching the point of desperation. The union has reached a tentative settlement with one of the independent mining companies that does not bargain through the industry's joint association. Perhaps that agreement will offer a route to a wider settlement.
If not, there is, as a last resort, seizure of the mines by the federal government. President Truman took the mines and ran them for seven months in 1946. But that would require legislation. There is support for the idea in the House, but the atmosphere in the Senate is coldly unreceptive. Senators have warned the administration that a seizure bill could interfere with the delicate preparations for the ratification of the Panama Canal treaties - let alone passage of the labor-law reform bill and the energy bill.
Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall is now preparing another attempt at reaching agreement through conventional bargaining. We wish him luck, but the chances of success do not look very good. In the meantime, we have to note, one of the most prominent victims of this unhappy strike is President Carter's national energy plan. As you may remember, it calls for a massive shift of the economy from imported oil toward coal. With the industry on strike since Dec. 6, not many industrial users are showing any visible enthusiasm about switching away from their present reliance on oil. In the end, one effect of the strike may well be to turn the country more sharply toward nuclear power.