Members of the United Mine Workers of America were rejecting a proposed contract with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BOCA) by a better than 2-to-1 ratio last night, endangering union and industry hopes for a speedy end to a strike that began last week.
Unofficial returns from two-thirds of the union's locals covered by the proposed agreement showed 68 percent of UMW members voting against the contract.
Asked if the trend could turn, one union official said tersly: "C'mon, how much pull do you have with God?"
Union spokesman Eldon Callen said of the contract proposal: "It doesn't look like it will pass." He said UMW President Sam Church Jr., who was unavailable for comment last night, probably will be on the telephone today with BCOA officials seeking resumption of contract talks.
Rejection of the pact would not only spell a possibly long and costly strike in the soft-coal fields of the East and Midwest, where the BOCA has 130 mines, but would signal a repudiation of the leadership of Church, who tried to sell the contract during a whirlwind tour of coalfield towns.
Rejection also would send a message to the Reagan administration, which has taken a hands-off attitude in the coal negotiations but also has a vested interest in holding the line on wage settlements in its attempts to control double-digit inflation.
The proposed contract would give affected UMW miners a 36 percent increase in wages and benefits over the next three years.
A rejection this year would mark the second time since the 1977-78 contract battle that the UMW rank and file has thrown a proposed agreement back at its leadership.
In some parts of West Virginia on his tour, Church was heckled and pelted with eggs as disgruntled miners charged that he had sold out their interests by accepting an industry demand to forgo royalties paid into the union's health and welfare funds by UMW-organized coal companies involved in the purchase of "nonsignatory coal."
A lengthy strike by the 160,000 affected UMW members probably would hurt the union more than it would the coal industry or the nation's economy.
Church has conceded that the union has no strike fund. And industry sources claim that electric utilities and other major coal users have stockpiled three to four months worth of coal in anticipation of a possible lengthy walkout.
However, both BCOA and union officials had expressed concern about the image of the domestic coal industry, which has been marred by periodic walkouts since 1966. The last strike, a record 111-day work stoppage that began in late 1977, did little to improve that image.
Industry and union officials, who began talking in earnest about a new contract on Jan. 22, had hoped to avoid a repeat performance this year. But disputes over pension benefits, work rule changes and the "nonsignatory coal" issue threw the talks off-track a week before the contract expiration date, ensuring at least a short strike because the union's rules call for a 10-day contract-ratification period. UMW miners traditionally do not work without a ratified agreement.
The proposed contract offers miners a 36 percent across-the-board increase in wages and benefits over three years, a compromise between the union's final demand for 46 percent and the industry's final offer of 20 percent.
Both the union and the industry made some major tradeoffs, with the BCOA dropping demands to scrap its multi-employer pension and to institute Sunday work.
The union, in return, agreed to permit the soft-coal operators to stop paying a $1.96 per ton royalty for each ton of coal "signatory companies," such as electric utilities that own coal mines, purchase from coal firms not included in the UMW-BCOA agreement. The royalty provision, in effect since 1964, has contributed millions of dollars to the union's health and welfare funds.