"The compelling imperatives of growth demand nothing less than a labor relations revolution to match the metamorphosis of coal into a primary energy source."

Joseph P. Brennan, president, Bituminous Coal Operation Association, May 6, 1977

"This thing can't go on."

Ray Marshall, Secretary of Labor. Feb. 16, 1978

Sometime between the anticipation of May and the angst of February, the coal industry's "labor relations revolution" turned into a rout.

Instead of a new era of labor peace and productivity in the coalfields, the nation has had a record-long coal strike that caused everything from a shortage of electric power in the Midwest to a paralysis of political power at the White House.

There had seemed ample reason for bullish talk from the coal industry last spring.

The industry had just been tapped by the Carter administration as the centerpiece of the nation's energy program. The future was darkened only by what the coal operators regarded as the "industrial anarchy on a grand scale" of the United Mine Workers, a once-powerful union that was threatened from within by factional warfare and from without by competition from non-UMW mines.

The time was right, so the theory went, to entice or, if necessary, compel the union to accept the kind of discipline that would be required to turn the rough-and-tumble coalfields into an efficient energy factory.

This meant controlling the coalfields' epidemic of wildcat strikes and absenteeism, imposing stiff restraints on skyrocketing medical costs, and increasing management flexibility to institute pay bonuses and other production-stimulating measures - all of which looked possible in the rosy glow of the 1977 spring.

The problem was that the theory defied a principal UMW of faith: miners will not mine coal under rules they don't like that are set by someone else, especially coal operators. They precept was reinforced by another coalfield axiom only miners can mine coal - not presidents or secretaries of labor, not soldiers, and not laws or Taft-Hartley injunctions.

The reasons for this are complex and often bewildering to outsiders, having to do with factors as varied as the extreme physical hazards of coal mining and the pride, independence and clannishness of mountain people.

For 15 weeks the 160,000 UMW strikers have been proving the durability of their ancient truths as the industry has been forced to yield ground - not to union leaders' demands but to a rank-and-file militancy that harkens back to the days of the late John L. Lewis.

And on Friday the Carter administration was stripped, temporarily at least, of the one legal weapon it had tried to use against the strike, when a federal judge found insufficient grounds to continue a temporary Taft-Hartley back-to-work order, which the miners were ignoring anyway.

The industry won a Pyrrhic victory Feb. 6 when it negotiated a contract with a union bargaining team led by UMW President Arnold Miller that would have imposed penalties for wildcat strikes ans chronic absenteeism, given coal companies control over the union's independent health and pension systems, provided bonuses as incentives for higher coal production and made miners pay part of their medical costs in an attempt to hold down outlays for the union's previously free "womb-to-tomb" health care.

This contract was torpedoed by the union's bargaining council on Feb. 12. A second negotiated contract, which modified many of these provisions, was sandbagged by the rank and file in a ratification referendum March 3-5.

Now a third contract - containing tattered vestiges of the industry's initial demands, including company takeover of health care, scaled-down medical deductibles, and production incentives by consent of local unions - is scheduled for a a vote Friday.

Its chances, too, are in doubt, although prospects are brighter than before.

Among the many peculiarities of this strike has been the absence of controvery over wages, which were already at or near the top of all industrial pay, according to government statistics.The contract would raise average hourly wages from $7.80 to $10.20 over three years, an increase of more than 30 percent. The total three-year cost for wages and benefits combined is estimated at 39 percent by the union and only somewhat less by the industry and government.

This would be the largest economic gain for any major union since an increase of more than 50 percent obtained by this same union in 1974, according to the government's Council on Wage and Price Stability.

The expensive 1974 contract contributed to the Bituminous Coal Operators Association's desire for something in return this time, especially in light of a decline in productivity of nearly 25 percent since then.

"We paid out dues for the stability which we needed," said BCOA's Brennan in the May 6 speech. "We have not received even a portion of that stability (which) we have every right to expect."

The industry was none the less willing - and apparently able - to pay more to buy the stability. But for the union it was no sale so long as members viewed the trade-off as an intolerable regression on work rules and union prerogatives, many of which, including wildcat strikes, are grounded in the hazardous and grueling nature of coal mining.

Any industry hopes of cashing in on the almost comic-opera disarray in the union's top leadership ranks were also dashed along the way. Dealing with the union was like "squeezing putty," said a government official. Cut a deal with UMW President Miller, and the bargaining council dominated by regional leaders would unravel it; cut a deal with the bargaining council, and the membership would undo it. The bottom line of power in the union was 160,000 independent, free-thinking angry people: democracy in full cry.

So far the union - divided, leaderless and nearly broke - appears to have won. Its rank and file, running roughshod over its leaders, has brought the industry to its knees thumbed its nose at President Carter and the federal courts and caused some shivers and jitters in a dozen coal-dependent eastern and midwestern states.

But time may be running out on the union too. The government, having tried and failed at everything else, appears to be hunkering down in hopes of outlasting the strike and making the most of every lump of coal that is produced by non-struck mines.

Production is inching up - from one-third of normal when the the strike started Dec. 6 to more than half-normal now. Concumption in coal-short states is down. Strike-related job layoffs have tapered off. The now-vacated Taft-Hartley ban on any interference with the production of coal was said by the government to have helped reopen a number of closed non-UMW mines, but some industry sources contend that time, weather and rising coal prices were a bigger factor than Taft-Hartley.

TFriday's ratification vote thus comes at a crucial point. If the vote is no, it is generally expected that industry-wide bargaining will break up into localized negotiations, further fragmenting the union as well as the industry. Then the UMW may join everyone else in the loser's corner.