A hearing challenging the United Mine Workers decision to negotiate separate agreements with four former members of the Bituminous Coal Operators Association was postponed until at least next year, an official said.

Kevin Feeney, a spokesman for Houston-based Amax Energy, said Tuesday that the National Labor Relations Board asked that the hearing be postponed. It was scheduled for Monday before U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green in Washington.The hearing was postponed "at least until January, but no date was set," Mr. Feeney said.

After the strike began, four companies, including Amax, dropped out of the coal association to negotiate separate agreements with the union.

The association responded by filing unfair labor practice charges against the union and the four companies, accusing the union of trying to break up the association.

The labor board also asked Judge Green to dismiss an injunction that barred the union from enforcing an interim contract with Amax, Mr. Feeney said.

The union and Amax signed the agreement after Amax dropped out of the coal association.

A coal association spokesman, Morris Feibusch, declined comment on the court action.

Also Tuesday, negotiators for the union and the operators met again in Washington to work on language details of a proposed contract to replace one that expired in February, according to a spokeswoman for mediator Bill Usery. She did not give her name.

The union says about 17,500 union members are on strike in seven states in Appalachia and the Midwest, including about 300 in Ohio. The union says the dispute centers on job security and future employment for its members. The strike began May 10 and has expanded several times since.

Sources close to the negotiations between the union and the operators association have indicated that both sides will drop various unfair labor practice charges as part of an overall agreement on a new contract.

That agreement likely could include dropping part or all of the charges against Amax and the others - Freeman United Coal Mining Co. of Marion, Ohio; Homer City Coal Processing Corp. of Homer City, Pa.; and American Electric Power Co. of Lancaster, Ohio - the source said.

Amax said it dropped out of the association because of a planned merger with Cyprus Minerals Inc., which is not a member of the association, although the company does have a contract with the union.

Shareholders of Amax and Cyprus approved the merger in November.