ONCE AGAIN a coal contract has been drafted, and once again it goes to the miners for a vote. This time the outlook is more hopeful than it was at the beginning of the month, when the earlier version went to referendum. It's not only that the coal companies have given up some of the points they scored in the earlier draft. It's the fears that both sides have regarding the consequences of another failure - the fears that unexpectedly drove them back into negotiations this week.
Neither side regards the federal government as a useful ally - a compliment, we would say, to Mr. Carter's impartially. Both sides are deeply apprehensive that, without a contract covering the whole industry, bargaining would soon fragment into separate agreements between each company and local union. The threat cuts both ways. The industry is afraid that, in another year, under stronger leaders, the union could play one company off against another. The union's anxiety, equal but opposite, is that fragmentation could mean the end of the United Mine Workers.
As for the disruption and unemployment resulting from this long strike, the astonishing thing is that it has been so modest. Earlier in the winter there were rumors of massive layoffs but, instead, employment nationwide rose in February. Even in the central states, the region most heavily dependent on coal, the number of people laid off specifically because of this strike is in the neighborhood of one-half of 1 percent of the labor force. That's unwelcome, but it's hardly a disaster. In recent weeks coal deliveries from non-union mines have been rising at a startling rate. When the strike first began, it cut the nation's coal production to about a third of the normal level. But by last week production was approaching 60 percent.
That, incidentally, put President Carter in a peculiar position. In order to get the Taft-Hartley injunction to send the miners back to work, he had to argue that the strike was creating a national emergency. But at the same time he needed to get the message across to the strikers that their leverage was diminishing. The idea had been spreading among the miners, that, if they held out, they could force the president to seize the mines - on the miners' terms. You may have noticed that, in the course of his press conference last Thursday, Mr. Carter offered two quite different views of the strike. He first said that it threatened an alarming wave of layoffs. That was for the judge who was hearing the injunction case. Then he observed that coal production was surprisingly strong, most utilities' stock piles were still substantial, and the return of only a "moderate" number of miners would hold off a crisis indefinitely.
The international effects of this strike, oddly, may well turn out to be more lasting than its impact here in this country. While it will seem profoundly bizarre to most Americans, the strike apparently contributed to the slide of the dollar in recent weeks. Europeans kept hearing warnings of massive unemployment, and lights going out all over the American heartland. The Carter administration wasn't intervening, a posture that the Europeans generally took to be evidence of ineffectual leadership. It was that perception of the strike, rather than any measure of its actual effects of the economy, that the world currency markets registered.
The coal strike stands as a warning that there is more to national energy plans that drawing lines on charts. The president's call last year for tremendous increases in coal production immediately created an atmosphere of wild optimism in which both the industry and the miners demanded far too much of each other. That, in turn, created a deadlock that only time could dissolve - as it turned out, a great deal of time.