Officials of both sides in the proposed coal miners' contract settlement returned here for briefings yesterday in preparation for a final round of selling by union officials before this weekend's ratification vote by 160,000 strikers.
The two groups met separately, one after the other, using the same room at the Capital Hilton. As expected, there were few clues to the outcome of this weekend's vote. The companies are expected to accept the settlement; union officials remained cautious.
Meanwhile, Kentucky Gov. Julian Carroll who played a key role in the talks, told reporters yesterday that ratification of the contract now was "in jeopardy." Carroll said he hoped union leaders would be able to sell the pact, but said right now it had "a 50-50 chance."The developments came as the White House-negotiated settlement came under criticism as being likely to undermine the administration's newly launched anti-inflation effort.
Although the miners' contract traditionally does not influence wage settlements in other industries, analysts both in and outside the administration expressed fears that Carter's special attention to the miners may prompt other union leaders to seek comparable treatment.
Specifically, officials voiced apprehension it may affect demands by railroad and trucking industry workers, whose contracts are up for renegotiation this year. The White House last month proposed a new anti-inflation plan calling for moderation by workers and companies.
At the same time, officials conceded the coal contract could boost steel and utility prices. The administration's internal estimates show the 37 percent wage boost called for in the settlement could push steel prices up $3.70 a ton to an average of roughly $268.
The impact on utility prices is somewhat less certain. Although most economists agree the increase nationally would be small, analysts say utility costs could rise substantially in parts of the Midwest and the West, where generating plants are almost entirely powered by coal.
Presidential press secretary Jody Powell told reporters yesterday the miners' contract settlement stemmed from "special factors" and said the administration "does not view it as a model for other industrial settlements." He expressed hope the miners would ratify the pact.
The briefing sessions yesterday did little to calm apprehensions over whether the miners will ratify the new contract. If the rank and file turns down the settlement in voting this weekend, some experts fear the strike could continue for several more weeks.
Immediately after the briefing for the coal operation companies, Joseph P. Brennan, president of the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, told reporters he had answered questions from the group's 130 member firms and "I don't have any blood on my blue suit."
About 200 district and regional officials of the United Mine Workers attended the miners' session held about an hour later. Union President Arnold Miller offered no new assessment, but chided critics of the settlement.
"How can they criticize (it) before they've even seen it?" he asked.
The contract spelled out yesterday to company and union officials is similar to settlement rejected last weekend by miners working for the Pittsburg and Midway Coal Mining Co., but differs in one major respect:
Unlike the rejected P&M contract, the national settlement would guarantee specific health and welfare benefits, which the miners have demanded. At the same time, however, it would spell out deductibles.