Surface coal operators in this Powder River Basin community are trying to reshape American labor-management relations by stripping growth, profits and minerals from what they call a "union-free environment."

It's the story of how the other half lives -- the nonunion half, which digs about 50 percent of the nation's coal.

It is also a story about how the strip miners are trying to beat the unions at their own game of playing for bigger and better benefits for the American worker. Consider that:

Nonunion coal workers here get comparable and, in some cases, better pay than their unionized counterparts.

"Customary and reasonable" benefits in the nonunion mines and related operations include medical and dental coverage and, in some cases, rent and furniture subsidies.

More sophisticated firms, such as the Amax Coal Co.-Western Division, have established grievance precedures that rival those found in any United Mine Workers contract. In fact, Amax-West, the largest of 13 surface coal companies in this area of Northeast Wyoming, has gone its competitors one better on grievance handling: The company will pay the arbitration costs of any individual employe dispute that requires settlement by a mediator.

Union organizers, drawing on the often bitter history of the labor movement, argue that it's just the latest attempt to break the unions. They think the workers are living in a fool's paradise, that when the newness has worn off they will want the security and job protection union afford.

Coal executives in this "right-to-work" state, which means workers here don't have to belong to unions to hold their jobs, say the costs of keeping their employes happy are worth the "benefits" of keeping the unions out.

"The union-free approach is a very practical thing," said E. H. (Gene) Lovering, employe relations manager of the Carter Mining Co., headquartered in Gillette.

For one thing, we don't have strikes or other work disruptions," Lovering said, referring to the recent walkout by the United Mine Workers that shut down soft-coal mines in the East and Midwest for 73 days.

Lovering also included flexible work rules, allowing the companies to place their employes where they need them most, and better management control over production among the benefits of operating union-free. Workers and managers agree that the nonunion approach "fits" the work force found in this and other Rocky Mountain states.

"The individuals out here seem to be open, free, primarily rancher-types from small-town backgrounds. They've battled the elements all of their lives and survived. They're proud of that. They don't take too kindly to being organized," says Lovering, whose company pays its employes an average monthly salary of $2,600.

Robert (Bob) Wright, 39, has heard it all before. Although white, he is a member of the smallest minority group in this town of about 15,000 people, in which 97.2 percent are white, 2.4 percent are Spanish speaking, and the rest (about 10) are black. Wright is an organizer for the United Mine Workers, whose members produce about 44 percent of the nation's coal.

"It's tough," said Wright, who hails from Kemmerer, Wyo., a small union enclave in the southwestern corner of the state. "The people out here have a different philosophy from the people back East. The people here didn't grow up with unions, and the only thing most of them know about unions is strikes. They're really afraid of striking."

The strike fear stems from the end-of-contract walkouts that have plagued UMW labor-management relations since 1964. Media attention to the disputes overshadows the union's successes in negotiating separate western contracts -- the Western Surface Agreements -- mostly without strikes, according to Wright and other union officials.

Still, the traditions of the Gillette area plus the state's "right-to-work" law, make union organizing difficult.

"The workforce here is younger [the average age is 26.5 years old] and the cost of living is high. You have a lot of people who used to make minimum wages, or who were unemployed. They've come here from hard-pressed places like South Dakota and Michigan and they're getting big money, $25,000, $30,000 a year. All of a sudden, they're buying cars and four-wheelers. They have a house and maybe a boat.

"They're hocked right up to the hilt. They have everything, but the can't afford it. They have to meet those payments. They can't afford to go on strike."

A former public school official in Kemmerer, Wright earns $27,000 annually. That's $2,000 less than the yearly pay of Deanna Leatherberry, 26, a divorced mother of two who drives a 20,000 gallon water truck at Amax's huge Belle Ayr surface mine, a few miles south of here.

Leatherberry's job is to keep the water flowing to active mining pits, where it is used to hold down wind-blown coal dust. She likes her work and doesn't believe she needs a union.

Leatherberry said her Amax health insurance benefits adequately cover the needs of her 9-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. Prescription costs above $1 are paid by the company. She and her children receive major medical insurance and have a company dental plan that pay full or partial coverage, depending on the care needed.

Leatherberry is eligible for two weeks paid vacation and next year will get three. The company can require her to work overtime, but not more than 10 hours on any day. She can be required to work Saturdays or Sundays, with due notice. She works a "44-hour-week" -- 48 hours one week, 40 hours the next.

Leatherberry has 11 paid holidays plus seven personal or sick leave days. Her income partially is protected by the company if she is absent from work for a longer period for "a non-job related sickness or accident," according to the Amax-West employe handbook. Wright and other organized labor members contend this largely was copied from Amax contracts with the UMW.

A comparison of hourly wage schedules suggests why Leatherberry and her fellow workers aren't interested in unions.

Under its latest surface mine agreements, the UMW has guaranteed its members an average "lowest" starting pay of $11.42 hourly and an average "highest" starting pay of $12.52 an hour. Amax-West's average "lowest" starting wage is $12.28 hourly and its average "highest" start rate is $15.54 an hour.

The lone union mine in the area is the Wyodak Mine east of Gillette, which is represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Wyodak's 50 unionized employes earn an average of $2-to $3-an-hour less than their nonunion peers in the area.

"You can't promise the people better wages and benefits because they already have better wages and benefits," Wright said. "So, you have to try to sell them job security. You have to get them to understand that a handbook is not the same thing as a binding contract, that what the company gives you in one handbook it can take away in another."

Job security is what the UMW, the International Union of Operating Engineers and the Northeast Wyoming Affiliated Coal Mine Employes (NEWACME) tried to sell Amax workers in 1979 in a three-way battle to represent employes at the company's two Gillete-area mines. Of 405 votes cast in the representational election, the unions collected 33, about 16 which were contested ballots.

The campaign was lost because the unions spent more time fighting one another than they did organizing workers, says Robert Gilmore, an Operating Engineers organizer based in Sheridan, Wyo.

For two years before the election, the unions traded charges and countercharges before the National Labor Relations Board. By the time the NLRB notified the warring unions that they could hold their representational races, "We realized that there was just no way in hell that you could organize in that situation," Gilmore said.

But neither Gilmore nor the UMW's Wright say they are abandoning their uphill battle to increase organized labor's 10 percent -- and declining -- share of Wyoming's estimated 6,100 coal employes.

"That is going to change," Gilmore said. "Most of the companies in the Powder River Basin are brand new. They haven't got up to full production. Many don't have long-term contracts, yet. But they're going to get them, and they're going to start pushing their people harder and harder to meet production quotas. When their people get tired of being treated that way, we're going to move in. We're getting calls from workers already."

Walter (Bernie) Siebert, an attorney for the Denver-based Mountain States Employers Council, which represents 850 largely energy-related businesses in the Rocky Mountain region, believes the companies will stay "union-free" as long as they want to and as long as they stay in the West.

"Union-free' is not a cost-cutting arrangement," he says. "It's designed to help management accomplish other things -- flexibility of operation, elimination of old labor-management adversary relationships that you have with unions, the creation of the kind of atmosphere in which employe and employer can work together."