Despite all the talk of tough government action to end the coal strike, no good options are really open to President Carter. In practice, application of the Taft-Hartley Act, which the president invoked yesterday, will probably bring only a fraction of the men back to work, and seizure of the mines by the government poses immense political and managerial problems.
So the best hope is to continue the negotiations on a different level. Instead of industrywide bargaining, this time the talks would have to go on a state-by-state and district-by-district basis.
Carter's invocation of Taft-Hartley, to be sure, looks inviting. It mandates a return to work for 80 days under the terms of the last best management offer, with a fact-finding board to try to sort out remaining differences. Thus the mines reopen, and there is a mechanism for adjusting unsettled issues.
But Taft-Hartley has a had name with the unions and working people in general. Though the law provides sanctions for union officials who defy the return-to-work order, no action can be taken against spontaneous refusal to work by individual workers. The miners learned long ago how to practice just such spontaneous resistance.
Given the overwhelming opposition shown in the negative vote on the last offer, the strong expectation is that while union officials will urge compliance with the law, many miners will refuse. The best guess of one of the government officials who has been closest to the talks from the beginning is that not more than 20 percent of the miners will go back to work in response to a Taft-Hartley injuction.
Seizure of the mines, on the other hand, looks good to the miners. It is smack in the face of the operators, whom they dislike. They figure the government would be a more tolerant boss, and that eventually the companies would have to give way.
The trouble is that the government is really not in good position to seize the mines. For one thing there is a heavy jurisdictional problem. The Department of Energy is the logical candidate to run the mines. But it is much too new and inexperienced for that task.
An additional problem is posed by the unresolved issue of pensions. The liabilities run into the billions, and it is no easy thing for the government to undertake that kind of responsibility on a moment's notice.
Finally, seizure would have to clear Congress. No matter what advance commitments are made now, it would be very difficult to push legislation involving such controversial matters through the Sente and the House in a hurry.
he negotiating front is not exactly inviting either. Both labor and management have been exhausted by the marathon strike. Many leaders on both sides have committed themselves and been repudiated. They are not eager to stick their necks out again in a hurry.
But the essential situation now is different. The negotiations, which many on both sides of the bargaining table thought would succeed, have not borne fruit. The talks are at an impasse.
Moreover, both labor and management are badly fragmented. Practically every significant leader in the Mine Workers has questioned the primacy of the UMW president, Arnold Miller. Leading local officials in Illinois, Kentucky and West Virginia have been particularly vocal in their opposition to Miller. Presumably they would not mind at all doing a series of local deals that portrayed them as much better negotiators than their present boss.
The ranks of management are similarly divided. The steel companies, which led the negotiating team, have been particularly tough in moving to win concessions from the divided union. But many other coal producers - notably Peabody Coal, Island Creek, and Amax - have been much more generous. "We'd go in a second," an executive of one of those companies said, "if we thought the unions were prepared."
So there are the elements of a series of local deals. Unfortunately, the bitter experience of the past makes an early agreement unlikely. That is not catastrophic - for a special government unit under the Department of Energy has actually been finding and moving a lot of coal nobody knew existed. But a series of fragmentary agreements reached over a long period of time can only yield further bitterness and unrest - the exact opposite of the stability in the mines that the country needs for the long-term future.