Contract talks between the United Mine Workers of America and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association stalled yesterday, and union officials said the delay will lead to a strike when the current three-year agreement expires March 27.
In Pennsylvania and West Virginia, local UMWA members apparently decided not to wait for that deadline. Hundreds walked off their jobs last night, shutting down mines and putting an undetermined number of their nonstrikers out of work.
About the time the walkouts began, WMWA President Sam Church Jr. was sending his 39-man bargaining council home from talks scheduled here yesterday. Church said he had waited 11 1/2 hours for the industry representatives to resume negotiations.
At an 11:30 news conference last night, Church spoke pugnaciously. Flanked by aides, he excoriated the BCOA for an alleged "take, take, take" attitude in the talks.
For example, he said the union had asked for a total 45 precent increase in economic benefits, and that the BCOA countered with a "ridiculous" offer of 20 percent. "We must fight to win" these and other benefits, Church said in a speech obviously aimed at his membership. "We will stand firm," he said.
Earlier in the day, he had told reporters tersely, "I don't think the coal operators want to settle without a strike." Church's spokesman, Eldon Callen, eleborated on that allegation later.
Callen said the negotiating team concluded at 5 a.m. yesterday, when industry representatives left the bargaining table, that the union and operators were working toward different goals.
The Bcoa's chief negotiator, Bobby R. Brown, said his team bargained in good faith and was making a serious attempt to break the string of national contract strikes that began with a 17-day UMWA walkout in 1966. The last peaceful settlement was in 1964.
According to union sources, other issues creating the current impasse include a BCOA proposal to replace its multiemployer pension plan with company-by-company pension coverage and a BCOA demand that its mines, soft-coal operations in the East and Midwest, be allowed to operate seven days a week.
The BCOA claims that the multiemployer plan, in which its 130 member companies pay pension benefits from a common pool, has become too expensive because of the closings of coal companies. The union has argued that a company-by-company approach would overburden small coal companies and jeopardize pension coverage for many union members.
The BCOA, saying that its share of the domestic coal market has fallen from 70 percent to 44 percent since 1970, is desperate to find ways of increasing productivity. It has called for mandatory overtime work and seven-day weeks, among other work-rule changes, most of which have met stiff union opposition at the bargaining table. c
Callen said Church told his bargaining council yesterday "to return home until further notice" Church is aware that "this means that we cannot avoid a strike at this time, even a short one," Callen said.
The union has contended that its rank and file needs at least 10 days to ratify any tentative agreement before the contract ends March 27. UMWA miners traditionally do not work without a ratified contract.