Widows launch coalfield
black lung benefits walk
BY FRANK FORRESTAL
AND TONY LANE
Linda Chapman (speaking) and Phyllis Tipton at rally to launch widows' walk
CHARLESTON, West Virginia--More than 60 people gathered here March 15 to launch Linda Chapman and Phyllis Tipton on a month-long "widows' walk" to Washington, demanding the federal government provide full benefits to miners who contract black lung disease, as well as to their spouses.
Their 400-mile-long walk will take them north through the mountains of West Virginia to Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and then on to Washington for a rally on April 15. The action is backed by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), National Black Lung Association (NBLA), and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
Along the way supporters of the fight are organizing press conferences, meetings, and other events to explain the devastating attack on the black lung benefit program and bring news of the struggle in the coalfields to force the government and the coal bosses to live up to their pledge to coal miners and their families.
A rally is scheduled for April 1, Mitchell's Day, in Uniontown. The day is a holiday for all members of the UMWA, traditionally used to hold rallies and meetings to defend coal miners and their union. For example, the UMWA organized a meeting of nearly 2,000 in Uniontown in 1998 to defend black lung and health and pension benefits for miners.
The kickoff for the walk to Washington was held in front of the UMWA District 17 headquarters here. Among those speaking in support of the effort were current District 17 president Joe Carter and former president Bob Phalen, the state AFL-CIO president and other union officials, representatives from the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, leaders and activists from
the Black Lung Association (BLA), workers from black lung clinics in West Virginia, and other supporters of the walk including several widows. The rally was covered by newspapers, and radio and television news stations in West Virginia.
A carload of retired miners from Illinois led by National Black Lung Association president Lewis Fitch drove in for the event. Fitch, who started in the mines in 1941, is a veteran UMWA member. Members of the Fayette County Black Lung Association drove 70 miles to the kickoff, along with staff from the New River black lung clinic. There was also staff from the Bluestone and Upper Kanawha clinics and members of the Kanawha Black Lung Association, including NBLA secretary and a key organizer of the widows' walk, Debbie Wills.
Kathryn South, widow of Mike South, a longtime black lung activist and former president of the NBLA, was present. Earlier in the week she had led a delegation of widows that unsuccessfully sought to testify before a Kentucky state senate committee reviewing black lung legislation. Despite being shunted by the Kentucky senate, South was able to get the word out on the unjust conditions widows and coal miners face around black lung compensation.
"Don't make the people wait until they are almost dead to get benefits," she said to an Associated Press writer in Frankfurt, Kentucky. A bill making limited changes to state black lung benefits was approved by the House 93–0.
UMWA president Cecil Roberts, in a March 15 press release supporting the walk, "applauded the widows' campaign," and said the "UMWA strongly endorses their cause...and is offering whatever assistance it can."
Black lung, or coal miners' pneumo–coniosis, is a preventable disease caused by breathing coal dust. With water sprays, ventilation, and respirators and other breathing apparatus, coal dust can be kept below harmful levels.
Some of the rally participants had, along with UMWA president Roberts, taken part in a UMWA-organized action of more than 200 people the day before in Inez, Kentucky, to protest the environmental record of antiunion, coal giant Massey Energy. Roberts and 10 others were arrested. In October 2000 there was a massive sludge spill in Inez from Massey subsidiary Martin County Coal's containment pond, dumping several hundred million gallons of sludge into surrounding valleys and streams. The union has received numerous calls from coalfield residents to do something about the coal giant's destruction of the surrounding environment.
'One foot in the grave'
Speakers at the rally said that they are not demanding additions to the black lung law but the deletion of two portions of the legislation added in 1981 that have made it almost impossible for widows or miners to qualify for benefits. When miners say you have "to have one foot in the grave in order to receive benefits," they do not exaggerate.
A press release by the NBLA explains that "the original act stated that if a miner was employed for fifteen years or more in the mines and other evidence demonstrates the existence of a totally disabling respiratory or pulmonary impairment, then there shall be a rebuttable presumption that such miner, his widow or dependents is entitled to benefits under the law.
"That act also stated that a widow would qualify for benefits if the miner's death was caused by black lung or if he was totally disabled by black lung at the time of his death. Both provisions were amended to say, 'except in claims filed on or after the effective date of the amendments.' This line needs to be removed from the current law," the statement concludes.
Linda Chapman explained the hurdles that are placed in front of miners and their widows who are seeking benefits. Her husband, Carson Chapman, was denied both state and federal black lung benefits. His state claim was initially approved but the decision was reversed on appeal by the coal company on the grounds that there was medical evidence Chapman had black lung for more than a decade before filing and that he had filed too late. The company lawyer who argued the appeal later showed up at Chapman's federal hearing and argued that he never had black lung disease.
For miners and their widows securing legal representation is difficult because the lawyer only gets paid if the claim is approved. On average it takes seven years to win a claim and only 4 percent of all claims are approved. New regulations were introduced last year to level the playing field for miners filing claims, but they gave no relief for widows, and the jury is still out on whether the new federal law benefits coal miners.
Chapman said the walk is "really not about me. It's about a lot of women who are older than me who don't have a voice." After the rally she said that "it was awesome to be able to go down and talk to more of the widows and tell them why we are doing this."
Other widows at the rally told their own stories. Peggy Coleman read the names of several widows who support the walk but are too ill to attend the rally. She added that if she were "20 years younger she would be walking but now she lets her fingers do the walking on the phone." Virginia Richards said that eight months after her husband died the black lung benefits were cut off. He worked in the mines 35 years.
A new wave of miners who started in the mines in the mid-to-late 1970s are beginning to come down with black lung, activists said. These new cases are cropping up after changes in laws regulating mining were supposed to bring an end to the bosses allowing coal dust to exist at levels high enough to cause black lung.
In addition, Tony Canada, a former coal miner and now a health worker at the New River clinic, said they are seeing more injured miners today. He noted that miners are younger, working longer hours, and working deeper in the mines. "I just saw a 32-year-old miner with a severe back injury in the clinic. He will never work in the mines again," said Canada.
The widows walk is part of the beginnings of a social movement against the worsening conditions working people face in the coal fields. Last year 13 miners were killed in West Virginia, 12 of them in the mines south of Charleston. This comes at the same time that the Bush administration is attempting to cut safety regulations and funding for federal safety programs.
Chapman, Tipton, and their supporters will walk through Clendenin, Spencer, Grafton, Fairmont, and Morgantown in West Virginia, then on to Uniontown, Pennsylvania. After the April 1 rally , the marchers will drive back to Grafton to continue their walk to Washington.
The NBLA is asking supporters to help by "joining the march, contributing money for the expenses of the walkers on the road, and/or put pressure on Congress and your congressmen to pass a stronger Black Lung Benefits Act."
"I hope we make it all the way, and we hope to see all of you in Washington, D.C., on April 15," said Phyllis Tipton, who spoke at the end of the rally. Chapman and Tipton then put on their walking shoes and began their 400-mile trek.
For more information on the widows walk call Peggy Coleman at (304) 595-2280. Donations for the walk can be sent to the NBLA, c/o Tom Ellis, P.O. Box 632, Royalton, Illinois 62983. A web page with newspaper reports on the walk is available at www.knowareland.com.
Frank Forrestal and Tony Lane are coal miners and members of the United Mine Workers of America.