Labor Gains White House Support, but Unions Are Still Losing Ground Coal Miners Strike, Hoping for Gains in the New Clinton Climate

Article excerpt

THE long winter of discontent between the American labor movement and the United States government is over.

The Clinton administration has already signaled the warming trend in small ways. Soon, it is expected to make its biggest gesture yet: lifting the hiring ban on air controllers who illegally struck the government 12 years ago. The move is an important symbol for battered unions.

"I think it's an important first step," says Jim Grossfeld, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America. "What the Clinton administration is attempting to do ... is making it very clear that the Reagan-Bush era of labor relations is coming to an end." New attitude toward labor

"It does say that Clinton in one or two areas is really trying to accommodate unions," adds Audrey Freedman, a long-time labor observer and head of her own management consulting firm in New York City. "Because the union movement made such a to-do about PATCO and Reagan's reaction to it, the Clinton reversal takes on symbolic importance."

PATCO was the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization - a strong-willed union that staged a highly public showdown with the Reagan administration. The union lost. President Reagan fired the strikers (it is illegal for federal employees to strike) and hired nonunion replacements. More than any other action in the 1980s, the dissolution of PATCO became the symbol of unions' long decline.

The biggest test of labor's strength now is an escalating struggle in the nation's coal mines. On Monday the United Mine Workers started selective strikes against three large coal operators with mines in Indiana and Illinois. Union president Richard Trumka plans to expand the action to press for more job security for miners. Operators have expanded nonunion mines at the expense of unionized ones.

Job security is an old issue, but the miners are arguing it in a new, more Clinton-sensitive way. The union wants a new labor-management relationship, Mr. Grossfeld says. "Our message is: We're willing to change, but they have to be willing to change too."

The Bituminous Coal Operators' Association, which represents the companies at the bargaining table, argues that union miners are not as productive as nonunion miners.

Setting a new tone, the Clinton administration has hinted it might reverse Reagan's ban on rehiring the fired air-traffic controllers. …