THE COAL STRIKE has arrived at a settlement --but it remains to be seen whether the settlement will stick. Now the contract goes to the miners for ratification, and the outcome is anything but certain. The White House staff, in the manner of all White House staffs, is claiming a great victory for vigorous presidential leadership. But President Carter himself is a good deal more cautious.
He urged the miners to approve the contract, in the national interest as well as in their own. If they don't, Mr. Carter will have to fall back on the "drastic action" that he had threatened over the past week. But the prospects for an imposed solution are not good. If the miners accept the contract -- as Mr. Carter and, incidentally, the union leadership hope -- many broad questions of equity will still remain unresolved. Because the union and the coal companies have demonstrated that they are not able to settle their differences without government intervention, the federal government's job as referee has not ended.
A contract does not guarantee peace in the coal industry. Last summer, you may remember, there was a wave of wildcat strikes throughout the Appalachivans. The strikes cut the flow of royalties into the health fund; as a result, benefits were cut, and that, in turn, incited more strikes. It would not happen again in precisely the same way since, under the new contract, the companies are to guarantee the benefits. But the contract would also require a charge for care that until now has been free, which seems to many miners to be an infringement of their accustomed rights.
To keep production steadily rising, and to keep absenteeism low, will require continuous attention to these long-disputed issues of benefits, work rules and health and safety standards. Mr. Carter has promised to set up a commission. The general reaction has been groans from the companies and jeers from the miners. They have seen too many studies and recommendations. But a bit of interest from outsiders, between crises, is not necessarily a bad idea. If Mr. Carter wants his commission taken seriously, he will have to demonstrate that he takes it seriously himself. That requires him to appoint respected people, and soon.
Even to get the settlement to its present highly conditional stage, Mr. Carter has had to make a series of significant concessions. He is not to be blamed for it; he probably had no alternative. But candor compels listing the ingredients on the label. From the beginning the administration has made it clear that this contract is to be regarded as an exception to any wage-restraint policy. The wage increase will be passed rapidly along to the buyers of coal, and from them to the buyers of steel and electricity. conventional anti-inflationary rules do not apply, for the present, to fuel and energy.
The companies had their own reasons for giving in to the president. For example, his trade representative, Robert Strauss, was on the phone to the steel industry, which, through its captive mines, strongly influenced the coal bargaining. The price of coal is a secondary concern to the steel industry these days. Its primary interest is federal policy on the limitation of foreign imports of steel.
Whether the coal constitutes victory for Mr. Carter is a question that can't be answered. Certainly he was right to get into the negotiations, and certainly they are moving faster and better than would have been possible without him. But the test isn't whether a contract gets signed, or even ratified. The real test is whether the contract leads, in coming months, to rising coal production for the country, an improving safety record in the mines, and a decline in strikes and disruptions by angry miners who believe they have no other way to make themselves heard.