A union rally in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, April 1 will mark the halfway point of the month-long 450-mile journey to Washington. The event is sponsored by District 2 of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).
Their walk from Charleston, West Virginia, to the nation's capital is aimed at mobilizing support for the struggle of working people that has emerged over the past several years in the coalfield regions to demand the federal government and coal companies provide benefits to miners who contract black lung disease and their families. The action is also putting a spotlight on the fact that black lung, more than 30 years after the 1969 Mine Health and Safety Act was enacted, still runs rampant in the coalfields.
Black lung, also known as coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is a debilitating and sometimes fatal respiratory disease. The UMWA estimates that 1,500 miners die each year from the disease.
In the years after the passage of the 1969 federal legislation, some 225,000 miners were declared permanently disabled as the result of black lung. As well, 140,000 widows whose husbands had died from black lung were found to qualify for benefits under the new act. The 1969 law was the first time that federal health standards were established for any industrial occupation, setting an important precedent obligating the federal government to ensure health and safety of all workers. However, the past decades have seen nothing but backsliding by Washington.
Today, the hard fact is that widows are denied black lung benefits. Since 1982, when the federal black lung law was weakened, widows have had to prove that their spouse's death was "due to" his pneumoconiosis. The previous policy that allowed widows automatic eligibility was abolished.
History of struggle
The Widows' Walk is part of a long tradition in the coalfields of working people fighting back against the coal bosses, the courts, bureaucratic government agencies, capitalist politicians, and the federal government. It is part of and inseparable from the fight by the ranks of the UMWA who began to confront the decline of their union in the 1960s. This is not the first time that widows have been on the front lines.
After the big class battles and strikes of the miners' union in the 1940s, working people in the coalfields for the first time won the right to free health care for miners' families, retirement pensions, cash aid for the disabled, death benefits, and maintenance assistance for widows and orphans. This victory for coal miners meant they no longer had to retire without a health card or a pension and be left dependent on the company doctor and hospital prepayment system.
These gains cut across the practices of the coal bosses, who, many miners remarked, "would rather lose a miner than one of the mules that pulled the coal cars." Through most of the last century it was common for a miner's widow to be evicted from company housing to make room for a new miner and his family. The widow had nothing; her only recourse was to remarry.
Following the pitched battles of the 1940s, miners received a $100 monthly retirement pension for the first time. The union also set up a rehabilitation program for sick and injured miners, allowing them to be flown to hospitals all across the country. Funds from the new UMWA Health and Welfare Fund were responsible for rehabilitating an estimated 97,000 disabled miners, including many who had been bedridden for more than 20 years.
One of the novel features in the 1946 UMWA contract was the commissioning of a study of the health conditions in mining communities. The U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine was assigned to make the study, which became known as the Boone Report after Admiral Joel Boone.
Initially, the report was suppressed. The union forced it to be published and when the study was made public in 1947, "its findings shocked the nation," one report noted. Studying working conditions in and around 260 mines, the commission found that medical facilities in the coal regions were woefully inadequate, and coal companies had imposed some of the worst health and safety conditions in the country. The government study also contains numerous photos of the deplorable housing, sanitation, and living conditions in the mining communities. The Boone Report noted that fewer than 20 percent of the coal mines were served by modern hospitals.
In 1952, the union announced its plan to build 10 new hospitals in the mining regions of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia. All were finished in the next four years. At the ceremonies opening the facilities thousands of miners traveled to help commemorate what was in their eyes a victory for working people in the mining communities. These hospitals cost the fund $30 million and made it easier to recruit doctors to practice medicine in the mountain regions of these three states.
However, all of this began to come apart in the mid-1950s. In 1954, the fund trustees--John L. Lewis being the most important--dealt a blow to disabled miners and widows by terminating cash aid. These miners were incensed because they thought these benefits were permanent. These two programs helped provide for more than 80,000 miners and 30,000 widows and their children.
Renewed assaults on miners
At this time, the coal industry was in decline. Competition from new sources of energy such as oil and gas led to a decline in production. Between 1945 and 1965, union employment decreased by 75 percent, from 383,000 in 1945 to just over 100,000 just 20 years later. The Health and Welfare Fund, financed by a tonnage royalty, started showing million dollar deficits.
At the same time the coal bosses expanded mechanization in the mines but without taking additional measures to control coal dust. Output per man tripled over this period. Working under the worst dust conditions in the history of coal mining, thousands of miners faced the nightmare of black lung disease. The federal government ignored the increasing numbers of disabled and dying miners, even while miners in the United Kingdom were receiving compensation since the early 1940s.
In another blow, officials of the fund announced in 1961 that the miner's health card would be cut off after one year of unemployment. In the same year the $100 pension was cut to $75. In 1962, the trustees announced without any explanation that the 10 coal hospitals it had dedicated six years before would be closed or sold. Today most remain open, but in the hands of private owners, and in various stages of bankruptcy.
Then the trustees announced in 1962 that benefits would be cut off to miners who had worked for coal companies whose owners had not been meeting their royalty payments. Miners soon learned that UMWA president John L. Lewis had signed "sweetheart agreements" with these companies by allowing them to withhold royalty payments. In 1965, the trustees restricted the 25-year service requirement for a pension by requiring miners to spend their final working year in a union mine. This meant that if a miner worked 30 years in a union mine, and was laid-off in his last year and started work at a nonunion mine, he would not be entitled to a union pension.
Growing discontent over these assaults led to an open rebellion in the coalfields by 1964 and 1965. With wildcat strikes and calls by rank-and-file miners for more democracy, the corrupt officialdom of the union led by Tony Boyle resorted to hooliganism and thuggery. At this time, 19 of the 23 union districts were under union trusteeship.
Miners who resisted faced reprisals from the union bureaucracy, such as blacklisting, having their pensions cut off, or being accused of "dual unionism."
In response to the 1968 Farmington mine disaster, in which 78 coal miners were killed, UMWA miners began mobilizing. It was the worst disaster since 1951, when 119 miners were blown up in a mine near West Frankfort, Illinois. The disaster received widespread media attention, including pro-company statements by UMWA president Boyle, who praised Consol as "one of the best companies to work with as far as cooperation and safety are concerned." Boyle failed to mention that Consol's No. 9 mine had a terrible safety record.
Referring to Boyle, one of the Farmington widows said: "I hated him right then. I couldn't believe someone could say that right there in front of the mine where all our husbands were buried alive." The 78 widows formed a Farmington Widows committee and began a drive for mine safety. Their testimony before Congress helped secure passage of the 1969 Mine Health and Safety Act.
Black Lung Association
The Farmington disaster and Boyle's antihuman response served as a catalyst to action in the southern coalfields of West Virginia. The Black Lung Association (BLA) was born in southern West Virginia in 1968. It became the dominant insurgent group and waged a successful wildcat strike in 1969, involving 40,000 miners and virtually shutting down coal production for three weeks in that state.
About 3,000 miners and their families marched on Charleston, West Virginia, and refused to leave until the governor signed a black lung bill. The legislation was the first making black lung a compensable occupational disease under the state workmen's compensation law.
Describing the work of the BLA in an article in the October issue of the UMW Journal, Raymond Wright, who was one of the rank-and-file leaders, said, "We were after something and we got it. At one time we had 5,000 to 8,000 people involved. Everyone was sober, everybody was serious. We were so orderly and respectable, we came out on top. We were all rank and file. There was no District or International officials or representatives in that march."
The work of BLA, which had dozens of chapters in a seven-state area, was reinforced by other militant organizations like the Disabled Miners and Widows of Southern West Virginia (DMW), who exploded on the scene by calling strikes against the abuses of the UMWA Welfare and Retirement Fund. Another group, Association of Disabled Miners and Widows, pressed legal challenges against the UMWA and eventually forced the removal of Boyle from the fund, as well as winning a lawsuit exposing the "willful defrauding" of some $75 million from miners.
In many ways the revolution in the union was propelled forward by the "discards of the coal industry"--UMWA miners forced out of the mines because of black lung, disabled and retired miners, and their widows and children. Many of the leaders of this movement were Black, reflecting the fact that in the 1960s southern West Virginia had the highest concentration of Black miners in the country. For example the first president of the BLA was Charles Brooks, a Black coal miner and president of a UMWA local. The president of the Disabled Miners and Widows was Robert Payne, a disabled Black miner from Itmann, West Virginia.
The DMW fought tenaciously against the coal bosses and the UMWA bureaucracy. In 1970, the DMW and rank-and-file UMWA miners shut down 120 mines in three states, idling more than 15,000 miners. The DMW fought off violent attacks, court injunctions, and even a murder plot against Payne.
Involvement of women
Many women held leadership positions too, both as miners' wives and as widows. Widows had special problems getting benefits, and they made sure their demands were heard. Social Security Administration (SSA) officials would often deny benefits to widows based on the death certificates, which rarely mentioned black lung as the cause of death. At one mass meeting of 800 in 1971 in Logan, West Virginia, the BLA presented a list of demands to officials of the SSA. Heading the list was a demand for respect: "Treatment of claimants like people not like dogs."
Widows and disabled miners organized mass protests across the coalfields against the SSA, the government agency that administered black lung claims. In 1971, shotgun-wielding police broke up a rally of disabled miners and widows at Big Stone Gap, Virginia. The widows also played a big role in the fight to establish black lung clinics, and for clinics that tested fairly and had modern diagnostic medical equipment..
In 1972, the mass pressure from the BLA, including the threat of a national strike, forced President Richard Nixon to sign a strengthened black lung bill.
Together with the rank-and-file Miners for Democracy, the insurgents from the southern coalfields carved out enough space to oust Tony Boyle from the leadership of the union. The ranks dealt a blow to hooliganism and to cold-blooded murder that was aimed at subduing the ranks. Boyle was eventually convicted of murder, and imprisoned.
The Widows' Walk comes out of this rich history of struggle. Their walk sets an example for the kind of determination that is needed today. One can be assured that the coal bosses and the government hate every step Chapman, Tipton, and their supporters take as they move confidently on to Washington.
Frank Forrestal is a member of UMWA Local 1248 in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The UMWA's safety director, Joe Main, recently blasted the move to weaken health and safety laws. In a letter to MSHA chief David Lauriski, Main wrote that the cuts were unacceptable and lax enforcement is costing "American coal miners their lives," reported the Charleston Gazette. "In the last 12 months, 49 miners were killed in the nation's coal mines. Through February of this year, eight have been killed in the nation's mines," said Main.
Main's letter demands that President Bush "send a strong message throughout MSHA and the mining industry by immediately beefing up enforcement of the Mine Act."
Main said it is less common for MSHA to use tougher enforcement rules, such as "significant and substantial" violations and unwarrantable-failure citations/orders. There are also less frequent mine inspections.
Main was also deeply concerned by what has been uncovered through an investigation of the mine explosion that killed 12 union miners and one boss at Jim Walters Resources No. 5 mine in Brookwood, Alabama. He cited at least seven areas where MSHA is backing off of enforcing safety laws. The union's investigation is ongoing. The September 23 disaster was the worst coal mining accident since the 1984 Wilberg mine fire disaster, when 27 were killed in a Utah mine. Interesting enough, Lauriski was the director of health, safety and training for Utah Power and Light Co., which owned the Wilberg Mine.--FF
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