The government, backed by the coal industry and United Mine Workers, will hold off on a request for a final Taft-Hartley injunction against the 101-day coal strike today in hopes of improving the climate for ratification of a new contract next week.
Sources said the Justice Department, with industry and union support, will ask U.S. District Court Judge Aubrey Robinson to extend for two more weeks the temporary restraining order he imposed under Taft-Hartley last week.
This would have the effect of delaying the full, 80-day injunction - and the government's controversial plan to cut off food stamps to those who continue striking in defiance of a final Taft-Hartley order - until after the scheduled March 24 contract ratification vote.
The Justice Department has concluded that exsiting law requires a food stamp cutoff after a final injunction is issued but not before. Hence the cutoff remains a threat in case the contract is rejected.
Opposition to continuation of the back-to-work order in any form is expected to come at today's hearing from a number of UMW locals and from the American Civil Liberties Union, which contends that the order violates constitutional rights of free speech and free association.
Optimism in some quarters that ratification would come easily this time dimmed Wednesday night when the UMW bargaining council voted in favor of the pact by an unexpectedly close margin: 22 to 17.
This was closer than the 25-to-13 vote of approval that the council gave an earlier contract offer that was later rejected by more than 2 to 1 by the union's 160,000 striking miners.
There were mixed assessments of the impact of the vote of the 39-member council composed of top UMW national and regional officials. Some members who went out on a limb to support the earlier proposal appeared to be trying to find a firmer footing this time, although the vote was generally viewed as setback to ratification prospects.
Although the Bituminous Coal Operators Association made major concessions on health and pension benefits as well as wildcat strike curbs, there is still controversy over proposed health care deductibles of up to $200 a year, pension inequities and production incentives.
UMW miners continued to defy the temporary Taft-Hartley back-to-work order, although the government reported a continued rise in the number of non-UMW mines returning to operation under the order's ban on picketing.
The work resumption has increased coal production to more than half of normal, up from one-third earlier in the strike, and yesterday the Labor Department reported that job layoffs resulting from the strike fell as of last week.
The department said a total of 22,900 factory workers were on layoff during the week ended March 11, compared with 25,500 the previous week. The tally was based on a survey of large industrial plants in 11 midwestern ad mis-Atlantic states that are bearing the brunt of the coal shortage, a region that employs a total of 7.8 million workers.
Employers also projected only a moderate increase in layoffs for this week, up to about 28,900. Normally the projections have been exaggerated.