WASHINGTON — The United Mine Workers and the Pittston Co. bargained intensely Friday in hopes of reaching a pre-Christmas agreement to end a bitter, sometimes violent eight-month strike, sources said.
The two sides have been in around-the-clock negotiations for three days, and although the government-appointed mediator has imposed a gag order on the talks, sources said considerable progress has been made.
But as several self-imposed deadlines for reaching an agreement passed Thursday and early Friday, the sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, raised the possibility that the talks could be recessed until after Christmas.
That would be a defeat of sorts for mediator W. J. Usery, who had pledged to seek a settlement by Christmas that would allow the nearly 1,700 miners from Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky to return to work after the traditional holiday shutdown of the mines.
At mid-week, Usery had called in UMW President Richard Trumka and Pittston Chairman Paul Douglas, both of whom would have to approve any settlement. Their presence stoked optimism, but the sources said despite progress an overall agreement was proving elusive.
They declined to discuss the obstacles, although at one point it was known that the company and union were at odds over job-security language for a new contract and the treatment of miners linked to strike-related violence.
Although the strike involves just 1,700 miners, it holds broad implications for the UMW and the mining industry. The dispute between the miners and Pittston over retiree health benefits threatens to undermine a decades-old compact between mining companies and the UMW guaranteeing retired miners full health benefits.
Pittston last year refused to participate in the compact, the Bituminous Coal Operators Assn. agreement, because it objected to the new funding formula. Pittston was unable to reach agreement with miners on an alternate plan and had stopped payments into union pension and medical funds.