THE MINERS' REJECTION of their contract is a grave misfortune for everybody - including, ultimately, the miners themselves. It pushes the country toward a dangerous power shortage. It presses the administration toward decisions it had hoped to avoid. As for the striking miners, they will probably find coal production shifting in the future toward the stripping operations in the West that are not organized by the United Mine Workers.
When President Carter got the UMW's bargaining council and the coal operators to agree on a draft contract, there were people who called it a victory for the president. That was wrong. Now that the union's membership has voted the contract down, the same people are calling it a defeat for the president. That's wrong, too. The strike isn't a football game, and doesn't lend itself to that kind of scoring. It has turned into a war of exhaustion, and the next phase depends on which is exhausted first - the utilities' coal piles, the miners' stamina, or the country's tolerance of power cutbacks and rising layoffs in other industries.
Mr. Carter has concluded that it's worth almost anything to get the miners back to work - and that the present moment is a bad one for serious talk about restructuring benefits and obligations. He understands that a Taft-Hartley injunction alone is not likely to end the strike. As an added inducement, yesterday he offered the very large wage settlement provided in the rejected contract. The rest of the contract, with its complicated changes in the rules on absenteeism and wildcat strikes, would remain in abeyance. If any significant number of miners accept that deal, it will be extremely difficult for anybody subsequently to write a final agreement less favorable to them.
But at this point there probably is no alternative. The Taft-Hartley injunction procedure assumes that a union controls its members. In the case of the UMW, that is manifestly wrong. As long as some men remain out, others would return to work only at considerable personal risk. If the administration tries to move large amounts of western coal to eastern utilities while the strike continues, the likelihood of violence will increase geometrically. Mr. Carter can call in troops. But to protect hundreds of miles of rail lines and power lines, through open country, is no small undertaking. The best that can now be hoped for is a selltement giving the miners most of what they want. The companies would give in - with a tacit understanding from the administration that they could pass the costs along to their customers, and to their customers' customers. As the cost of Appalachis's deep-mined coal goes up, there will unfortunately be more incentive than ever to move to strip mining.
From the administration's point of view, that kind of settlement would buy time. Time to do what? To do something, perhaps, about the causes of the wildcat strikes and absenteeism. To try to improve labor relations in the mines. But above all, it would provide the administration with time to reconsider the nation's energy planning and to build more flexibility into it. The Carter plan of last April was a singleminded attempt to diminish American dependence on foreign oil. That dependence still represents by far the greatest threat to the American economic stability. But this coal strike constitutes fair warning that the national power system is still vulnerable to other kinds of crisis as well. It begins to appear that the ideal pattern is one that depends on as many different sources of energy as possible, with great ability to shift quickly from one fuel to another and to transfer power from one region to another. That kind of flexibility will doubtless be expensive. But the miners are only repeating the message that OPEC delivered four years ago: that allof the solutions are going to be increasingly expensive from now on.