Warned that the union was on its financial deathbed, delegates to the 48th constitutional convention of the United Mine Workers of America today approved massive increases in union dues and fees.
The vote doubling individual initiation fees to $200 and increasing individual dues by 120 percent was seen collectively as another major victory for new UMW president Samuel Church Jr., who has used the convention to strengthen his control over the union's 230,000 working and retired members.
The votes also indicate the desperation of many UMW members who say they are willing to make nearly any sacrifice -- "spirtual and financial" as one delegate put it today -- to save their union.
On Tuesday the delegates made what many UMW members saw as a spiritual sacrifice by giving Church the one-time power to handpick his vice president, without the benefit of election. Church and his supporters said the appointive power is needed to avoid dissension and costs and to pull the oft-divided union together as quickly as possible. Those who opposed that action criticized it as trading democracy for unity.
Today, the delegates were told by UMW secretary-treasurer Willard A. Esselsytn that the union was in dire need of more money.
Since 1970, UMW's liquid assets have dropped from $46 million to $2 million, Esselstyn said. The 10-day meeting in progress here will drain that balance, he said.
Esselstyn said the union's finances have been eaten up by multimilliondollar court settlements, subsidies and loans to UMW district offices -- most of which are broke, and by strike benefits and inflation.
UMW is facing the possibility of losing another $16 million in pending court cases. Esselstyn said, If the union loses those cases, it could also lose its most valuable asset, the National Bank of Washington, roughly valued at $39.6 million, he said.
"Brothers and sisters, this is the state of our union today. It is not a condition we can allow to continue, but it is not a problem that is difficult to solve. All it takes is for all of us to stand together, as United Mine Workers of America," Esselstyn said.
Some delegates argued that increasing the initiation fee from $100 to $200 would hurt the union's chances to attract new members. But supporters countered that the increase was necessary to make the union strong. The new fee schedule was approved on a voice vote.
However, the proposed increase in individual union dues from the current $12 per month to $26.40 monthly was marked by nearly two hours of intense and sometimes rancorous debate.
Some of the more colorful examples of that debate came from delegate Willie L. Freeman of Bluefield, W. Va. and Billy Evans of Middlesboro, Ky.
Freeman said he opposed the increase because it would primarily benefit union officers "who drink up our dues" and other "high-priced officers working in air conditioned offices who spend their time hugging pretty secretaries."
Evans, apparently unmindful of the 2,600 women members of UMW, remarked that his brethren should be happy to pay the increase because he said, many of them spent much more than that for protitutes. "If a busload of women pulled up [outside the convention hall] at $50 a trick, you'd get runned over by people in there trying to get outside," he said.
In the end, after a lengthy roll call, the proposed dues increase was approved 1,181 to 912.