The high-risk, high-paying world of coal mining - described by critics as the ultimate redoubt of the white male in the American workplace - has been targeted by the government for a crackdown on alleged discrimination against women and minorities.
Officials said yesterday the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs will soon be notifying 153 coal mining employers, including all the nation's largest coal producers, that their affirmative action plans are going to be reviewed.
They said this will lead over the next several years to systematic establishment of goals and timetables for hiring women and minorities or, in extreme cases where employers refuse to comply, to cancellation of federal coal-buying contracts, which amount to billions of dollars for the industry as a whole.
The agency's action came in response to a complaint from women's groups in four Appalachian states that describes coal as 'probably the most blatantly discriminatory industry in the country today."
It quoted government reports indicating that 97.8 percent of all industry employes are male, with men holding 99.8 percent of actual mining jobs, down only slightly from 100 percent five years ago. It said 95.9 percent of all industry employes are white.
The government's targeting of the coal industry for special investigation is part of a general revival of the 13-year-old contract compliance program that bans discrimination by firms that do at least $10,000 worth of business with the government.
Each contractor must develop an affirmative action plan with timetables for hiring and promoting female, minority and handicapped workers, but officials concede that review and enforcement has been haphazard at best.
Under the Carter administration, enforcement has begun to pick up. This year at least 20 firms face possible contract cancellation, more than the total for the preceding 12 years, and the contract compliance office is moving rapidly to target whole industries for special investigation and fast action.
Last year it zeroed in on the banking and insurance industries, with proceedings launched so far against two banks and one insurance company. Other possible targets, officials say, include food processing, plastics and management consulting.
Coal, the supposed centerpiece of the administration's energy development program, may be only the first of several investigations of the energy industry.
Although the construction industry recently was handed a set of specific timetables for hiring women on federally connected projects, setting off strong protests from unions and employers, coal is the first major blue-collar industry targeted for a systematic investigation.
According to the agency director, Weldon J. Rougeau, there are two basic criteria for targeting an industry: complaints and job opportunities. Coal met both crieria, he said, and was targeted less than three weeks after the filing of a complaint by the Tennessee-based Coal Employment Project and several other women's and miner's welfare groups.
The complaint asserted that coal is a mojor "growth industry," with 186,000 new jobs envisioned by 1985, thus presenting an "excellent opportunity for women and minorities to claim a larger percentage of coal mining jobs without displacing present workers or precluding traditional applicants."
In an accompanying report, the Coal Employment Project, a volunteer group devoted to getting mining jobs for women, attributes previous resistance to hiring women as miners to entrenched customs and even superstition that women in mines bring bad luck, but added that "continued discrimination must be blamed more on prejudice and deliberate disregard for the law, not on quaint superstition."
It said requirements for physical strength have been reduced by mechanization, and suggested that demand for mining jobs by women would "snowball" once barriers are lowered.
The government's action directly covers the 153 operations in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia that were cited in the complaint, but they account for about half the nation's coal production and include big operators with mines in other states. Moreover, the review may be expanded to include other states, officials said.