United Mine Workers members here in the heart of the eastern coalfields said yesterday they will return to work only if the federal government seizes the mines and sets the terms for operating them.
Their response spells trouble for President Carter's decision to seek a court injunction under the Taft-Hartley Act ordering them back to work.
"Let the government take the books from the coal companies and find out what they can afford to give us," said John Lund, a 31-year-old miner in the Bethlehem Mine No. 58 in Marietta, Pa.
"There's no way I'm going back to work otherwise. It's already been decided."
Other mines in western Pennsylvania and in this coal-rich northwest corner of West Virginia echoed the same determination, insisting that a government takeover of the mines would mean a better deal for coal miners.
At the worst, said, they would end up working under the UMW's 1974 contract, which they said offers more benefits than the agreement rejected over the weekend.
"No one can afford to stay out any longer, but it's what we have to do. We've fought this long; there's no sense in backing down now," said Daniel Kenney, a miner in Cambria County, Pa.
Thomas Kearney, a member of Local 4426 in Harwick, Pa., said, "Government seizure of the mines couldn't be any worse than what was offered to us. I think we lost ground as far as the future is concerned and our survivors." Kearney's local rejected the contract 167 to 4.
The companies have offered a 37 percent pay increase over three years and Carter said yesterday he would resist as inflationary anything greater.
But money is not the issue.
The miner's complaints focus on five areas:
Work rules, which operators say wiill increase productivity.
Health and welfare benefits, which the miners, for the first time, would have to subsidize.
Pension guarantees, which the miners claim are too vague.
Prohibitions against wildcat strikes, which the miners say are their only weapon for forcing the companies to deal with grievances.
Absenteeism policies, would retrict unexcused days off.
And the miners expressed little fear that the government would be able to enforce a back-to-work order.
In the Hartley Inn in Carmichaels, Pa., 25 miles north of here, miners gathered around a television set to watch Carter's message and guffawed at the mention of governors and state attorneys general being alerted to enforce an injunction.
Lund, one of those watching, said, "They may be able to fine the union and [UMW President Arnold] Miller, but what are they going to about us? That's 170,000 court cases."
When one miner raised the prospect of the National Guard being ordered to break up picketing, Lund noted that a large part of the 110th National Guard infantry regiment headquartered at nearby Waynesburg, Pa., is comprised of coal miners.
"I don't know a guy reacts to that kind of situation. I guess if your sergeant gives you an order, you don't have more choice," said Lund, who is not a guardsman.
Andy Polosky, who said he has mined for 40 years and now works in the Buckeye Coal Co. mine, said, "They can't force a miner to dig coal if he doesn't want to. They may be able to get him down there if they fine him enough, but they can't force him to mine that coal."
Polosky observed that Taft-Hartley has been used three times before in UMW strikes, twice in 1948 and once in a strike that lasted from September 1949 through February 1950. In each case, the miners ignored court orders to return to work.
The miners said that health and welfare benefits headed the list of shortcomings in the rejected contract, and they complained that a 37 percent pay raise over three years would be diminished by a requirement that they pay a deductible for health care that has been free. The maximum deductible for active members would be $700 per family.
Pension benefits also were criticized, with many miners saying they want pension guarantees spelled out beyond the life of the contract. Some miners criticized the contract's pension equalization provisions under which older pensions were adjusted downward to the level of more recent retirement scales.
"What they've done to the 1950 pensioners makes me sick. I plan to make the mines my career and this just makes me sick," said one miner.
Strikers also complained about proposed absenteeism policies restricing unexcused days off, and new work rules designed to increase productivity. However, a few miners said the absentee rules already are too lax, and that workers taking time off for frivolous reasons hinder mine safety.
"Too many people are taking time off to drink beer or go hunting, and it's causing 80 percent of the accidents in the mines. If people are missing from your section, your chances of getting hurt are increased," one miner said.
Others objected to the proposed contract's provisions that would curtail wildcat strikes and result in the firing of instigators of "unauthorized" work stoppages. The wildcat strike, they said, is the only way the union can press grievances on such vital issues as health and mine safety.
For their part, the coal operators insists they cannot maintain profitable mines with frequent wildcat strikes.
Union leaders were uncertain about the likelihood of picketing in the event a court order is issued under Taft-Hartley.
Dennis Scarford, secretary-treasurer of UMW's District 31, headquartered in Fairmont, W. Va., said union district official were waiting for directions from the international before taking any local action.
"I'm not sure what the members will do. We'll have dissention, that's for sure, and there will be some who will want to picket. I figure the federal government will come out and try to control that to some extent, but we don't know how," Scarford said in a telephone interview.