Many of Virginia's striking coal miners were negative and even contemptuous yesterday about their new contract offer, but most of them, along with their leaders, were predicting a close vote in Friday's one day of balloting.
In union halls from Big Stone Gap to St. Paul in the heart of the coal fields of Southwest Virginia, members of the United Mine Workers of America received green-covered copies of the 37-page contract that was narrowly approved by the international executive committee last week.
"I don't think it's worth a dime," said Bob Collins, a member of Local 1137 in Dorchester. "But I'll probably vote for it this time."
Collins, along with an overwhelming majority of the 14,000 striking union miners in Virginia, voted against the previous offer made by the coal operators.
For every miner who said he would vote yes, there was another who said he would vote no. At some union halls the no's seemed to be a majority.
Assessments were difficult because there was no voting at the local meetings. Miners gave their opinions when the handful of reporters covering the meetings asked them what they though. The interviewing, therefore, was less than scientific.
Local leaders, virtually to a man, said they thought the contract was bad and would themselves vote aginst it. In a roundabout way, they communicated their opinion to the rank and file.
Nonetheless, most leaders said the outcome was a tossup. "It's going to be close," said Charles Bateman, president of the Dixiana local in Norton. His local rejected the previous offer, 129 to 59.
"There's very little difference," said Sherman Jones of Dorchester Local 6354. "But I'd say the vote will be 50-50'. His local rejected the previous offer 30 to 19.
Doug Collier, the 24-year-old president of Local 1405 in Big Stone Gap feld differently. After presiding over a packed meeting of his 600-member local at the John L. Lewis union hall, COllier said: "The miners are more togethr on being aginst this thing than they have ever been.?
The top Virginia leadership of the UMW is opposed to the contract, which contains new concessions by the struck Bituminous Coal Operators Association. But they are not a s vehement as they were when the previous offer was before them. Ray Marshall, president of District 28 in Castelwood, voted no at last week's executive council meeting, but he says now, "I don't think it would be a disgrace to vote for this contract."
While the union men had the contract explained to them, nonunion miners continued to step up production under the protection of Virginia State Police sent into Southwest coal fields by Governor John N. Dalton.
Outside the Dixiana union hall on the Guest River, big trucks loaded with coal rolled down the road. There also was a steady traffic of trucks on Rte. 23, the main road through the fields, and the coal trains continued their regular runs.
"The way I see it, Buddy," said one miner after a union meeeeeting, "he may as well like it ( the proposed contrast) because there is enough nonuinion coal being mined."
The miners' main demand appears ato be pension equities for old-timers who retired before 1974,M when bnefits were upgraded. While the new offer gives them $25 more a month then the previous proposal - for a total of $275 a month - many still will receive considerably less than miners with comparable years of service who have retired since 1974.
The UMW has continued picketing at the nonunion mines, but many union members say turnouts have been sporadic."If you bring food here," said Bob Collins, "you get everybody here, but if you put up a picket line, you can't get them to come out."
The very visible presence of the state troopers has had an impact on the picketing, too. Knowing they are protected, truckers with their haul of coal roared past the union protesters, who numbers have been sharply limittetd by the state courts under VIrginia's right to work law.