Coal Strikes Continue as Talks Falter, Then Stop
Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
THIS stretch of suburban Pittsburgh - across the street from a drugstore and shopping mall - is an unusual spot for a picket line. But there it is: Four coal miners, sitting on lawn chairs, holding signs, picketing the headquarters of Consol Inc. - the nation's second-largest coal company.
Passing motorists gawk. It is as if America is just waking up to the nation's coal strike. The walkout, now in its eighth week, is likely to drag on for some time. "We're beginning to see a pricing impact," says Rafael Villagran, a coal-industry analyst with Lehman Brothers. So far the price hike has been modest: about 5 to 15 percent in the Illinois Basin and northern Appalachian markets, where the strike is concentrated. If it continues, and "if the economy gains momentum, and the winter is colder, the impact could be significantly higher," Mr. Villagran adds.
The strike has been slow in starting, largely because the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) are slowly escalating the stakes. After the contract ran out Feb. 1, a small-scale strike, and a contract extension with more unsuccessful talks, the union began pulling its members out May 10. Job security is main issue
It has expanded the strike five times since then and now has 14,000 of its members in six states on picket lines. That is about one-third of the union miners employed by companies who are part of a multi-employer bargaining group called the Bituminous Coal Operators' Association (BCOA). No talks have been held since the strike began.
The main reason the two sides cannot get together on a new contract is that they cannot agree on the provisions of the old one. The flash point is job security. For decades, the UMWA has seen its membership - and its clout - dwindle, partly because the overall number of miners has fallen and partly because nonunion operations have grown at the expense of unionized mines. Typically, large coal companies operate union and nonunion subsidiaries.
The UMWA signed an agreement with the BCOA in 1988. Under it, employers who opened or expanded a nonunion mine pledged to give the first three of every five new jobs to laid-off UMWA members. These provisions are spelled out in Article II of the contract and were discussed near the end of the talks. UMWA President Richard Trumka and Consol head B. R. Brown vehemently disagree on what was said.
"If a company had not signed the contract, regardless of any common corporate heritage it shared with a signatory company, it had no obligation to offer any jobs to UMWA miners," Mr. Brown told reporters in Washington last week. "I understood those provisions when I negotiated the contract. More importantly, I believe that Rich Trumka, who is a lawyer by training, understood the provisions as well. …