The dusty, noisy and dangerous work of mining coal has its verbal equivalent here in the ongoing contract talks between the United Mine Workers of America and the Bituminous Coal Operators' Association.
Progress in the negotiations, which began in earnest Jan. 22, comes slowly and with much difficulty. Potential disaster accompanies every move at the bargaining table. The constant chipping away at seemingly intractable bargaining issues creates rhetorical dust that often irritates those involved.
The three-year master contract between the BCOA and the UMWA expires at midnight March 27. But the union, representing 160,000 miners in its talks at the Capital Hilton, has set a March 17 deadline for an agreement on a new part in order to allow for its "timely ratification."
UMWA members won't work without a contract. And their president, Sam Church Jr., has said he won't seek an extension of the current contract to keep the mines open until a new one is approved.
"We're getting to a very sensitive point," said a BCOA official, whose association is the bargaining arm for 130 companies that produced 44 percent of the 825 million tons of coal mined in this country last year. "If tempers are going to flare, it'll happen now. They're having some hard discussions . . . talking real settlement issues at this point," the official said.
Both Church and BCOA chief negotiator Bobby R. Brown say they want to wrap up negotiations without a strike, and believe they can. If they do, it would mark the first time in 15 years that the two sides will have come to terms without a strike. The last walkout, in 1977-78, lasted a record 111 days and inflicted heavy financial damage on the industry and the union. Both sides say they don't want to go through that again.
But UMWA and BCOA officials were saying late last week that they had not agreed on any one of the major issues before them. They include:
Cost-of-living allowance. The UMWA gave this up in the 1978 agreement, operating under the assuption that inflation would increase at an annual rate of 6 percent. Now, stung by presistent double-digit inflation, the union wants to reinstitute the provision.
Productivity. This covers a whole range of proposals; key among them is industry's push for continuous mine operations, including Sundays. It would accomplish this through stagered five-day work period. Miners in BCOA companies traditionally have opposed Sunday work, and UMWA negotiators have declined to discuss this issue with the BCOA thus far.
Pensions. Large BCOA firms want to scrap the mutli-employer pension plan, in which member companies pay benefits from a common pool, and replace it with a company-by-company private pension plan. However, smaller BCOA firms object on the ground this would increase their insurance costs. The union objects on the ground it would destabilize the pension program. But the larger BCOA companies -- Consolidated Coal, U.S. Steel and Peabody -- are growing weary of subsidizing their smaller brethren in the highly competitive coal industry. And the big firms have the biggest say for industry in the talks with the UMWA.
Arbitration. The union wants to get rid of the Arbitration Review Board set up in the 1978 agreement. Under the contract, the board has the final authority to resolve miners' grievances and to handle the appeals of decisions made by regional arbitrators. Industry representative generally think that the board has helped to facilitate grievance procedures and to greatly reduce the number of wildcat strikes. The union thinks that the board too often favors industry in its decisions.
Added to this is an outside matter that could interrupt the talks despite any goodwill and progress being made at the bargaining table. The Reagan administration wants to restrict payments from the two-year-old Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which it says has cost the U.S. Treasury $956 million since 1978. UMWA President Church has called for a two-day walkout March 9-10 in protest.
"black lung is an emotional issue for miners, and Sam is up for reelection next year. He has to get out in front on the black lung thing, or it'll drag him down," said a BCOA official.
The official repeated industry's assessment that "there is no real strike fever out there in the coal fields." But he said the saber rattling over black lung, a progressively crippling respiratory disease, "could complicate an already complicated situation."