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Coal Miners: Contract Falls Short


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After a 25-day coal strike, miners slowly began returning to work on Dec. 6th. The recent strike marked the expiration of a 3-year contract between the United Mine Workers (UMW) and the Bituminous Coal Operator's Association--the bargaining group which represents most of the major coal producers. With a long history of "No Contract--No Work," 120,000 miners went on strike on Nov. 12th. This strike deeply affected the production of ? of the country's coal.

Though the new UMV contract was ratified by a slim majority of rank-and-file miners (56%), there has been much out-spoken opposition to the final package negotiated by Arnold Miller (UMW President) and the coal owners. One of the demands of the miners was for a pay increase--an increase that would meet the financial problems resulting from the current economic crush. An 18% wage increase for the next 3 years was negotiated, but it still won't cut it as far as the miners are concerned. As one 25-year-old miner said, "We got a 20% raise last time and only 18% this time, with inflation getting worse. Sure, they say fringe benefits will bring it over 60%, but I'm young--I need money now." Based on the wage provision in the new contract, if inflation continues at its present level for the next 3 years, miners will have received only a 5% wage increase by Nov. 1977. Also, the 8% ceiling on the cost-of-living escalator is totally unrealistic. By the government's own statistics, the cost-of-living is rising over 12% a year.

The major criticism by rank-and-file miners of the contract is the absence of a right-to-strike clause, allowing miners to walk off the job over unsafe working conditions. The right-to-strike was the primary demand raised by the miners with regard to safety and decent working conditions. On Sept. 3rd Arnold Miller said, "The lives and safety of American coal miners are not negotiable items to the UMW." However, Miller changed his tune and ended up selling out the demand which has become basic to life in the coal fields. Under the new contract, miners still do not have the right to strike and disputes over conditions in the mines will still be settled by government inspectors or arbitrators. If these officials decide the miners do not have a legitimate grievance, the miners will be "subject to appropriate disciplinary action." Based on the government's practice, this will mean that officials will move quickly to try to penalize safety-conscious workers so as to try to stop the tide of dissent over working conditions and prohibit miners from uniting together and rising up against the often deadly mines.

There were some improvements in the new contract that did not exist in the 1971 agreement. There are improvements in retirement benefits, medical coverage has been extended to cover disabled miners and widows, there is better sick pay and accident benefits. Improvements in these areas of benefits were necessary to help insure the welfare to the miners, but they don't stack up when compared to the lousy wage increase and the lack of a right-to-strike clause. As one miner put it, "With coal profits up 181%, it's just not good enough."

So, the struggle of the miners continues. Demands for decent working conditions were not met in the recent contract strike, so we can bet that the miners will resort to the only means left to them to protect themselves--the "illegal" wildcat strike. The new 3-year contract is not going to really help the miners meet the basic necessities of life, and though there are gains in the new contract, the struggle to stay alive in the mines and to protect the only way they have of winning demands--their right to strike--has not yet been won. The people of this country have a responsibility to continue to support this vital struggle of the coal miners--a struggle which is important in terms of the living and working standards of all people.

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