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This Day in Labor History: December 30, 1969

[ 27 ] December 30, 2013 |

On December 30, 1969, Richard Nixon signed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act into law. The first comprehensive legislation in American history to protect the lives of coal miners, it came only after tens of thousands of deaths in mine accidents and even more deaths from black lung and other breathing problems of the mines.

Through most of the period since the Civil War, the coal companies had treated Appalachia as their own little fiefdom, almost completely controlling life in these isolated places and engaging in maximum violence to eliminate union organizers, especially in particularly isolated West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. The United Mine Workers of America finally broke through and unionized the mines in the 1930s under the leadership of John L. Lewis. But the conditions of work were still extremely dangerous. While workers themselves had long worried about safety on the job, the attention of union officials to these issues was not always the greatest. Coal mining always had a fatalism about it, with the assumption of the inevitability of some deaths. Between 1906 and 1970, there were 90,000 officially reported fatal accidents in the bituminous mines alone, as well as 1.5 million job related injuries between 1930 and 1969.

The companies consistently fought against any meaningful actions on workplace safety. What’s more outrageous was the indifference of the United Mine Workers leadership to the death of miners. The law only gained momentum after the Farmington Mine Disaster of 1968. Gas and dust exploded at a mine near Farmington, West Virginia with a long history of similar problems. This horrific event killed 78 miners. UMWA president Tony Boyle basically didn’t care. He was more concerned with good relations with the companies than protecting his workers. At the press conference after the disaster, Boyle told reporters, ‘As long as we mine coal, there is always this inherent danger. This happens to be one of the better companies, as far as cooperation with our union and safety is concerned.’’ Miners were furious. They began to organize against Boyle and his thugs who ran the union like dictators. Key to their complaints was the union stealing health and safety funds to line their own pockets. The specter of immediate death from accidents and slow death from black lung spurred grassroots organizing within the union to fight against the leadership.

Farmington Mine Disaster, 1968

With virtually no help from Boyle or top UMWA leaders, the Black Lung Associations managed to publicize the plight of workers and get Congress to push for a coal mine safety law. The BLAs, led by young miners back from Vietnam or Midwestern cities where they had exposure to the tactics of the civil rights movement, led highly public actions such as shutting down the statehouse in Charleston, all in direct defiance of Boyle. The strikers demanded that West Virginia allow for a multiplicity of ways to test for black lung, agreements to fund health and pension programs in exchange for mechanization that threw people out of work to be honored, and expanded workers compensation coverage. The protest succeeded and West Virginia passed a new law with these demands in 1969.

Black Lung Association protest, 1969

The success in Charleston led to a movement toward federal legislation. The Johnson Administration had introduced a coal mine bill in 1968, but it died along with much of the late Great Society over Vietnam and Johnson’s downfall. The Farmington disaster and worker protests led the government to act more seriously in 1969. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and 389-4 in the House. Nixon did not want to sign the law. As with much of the environmental and workplace related legislation he signed, he did so quite reluctantly and only after fighting to weaken the bill. He threatened a veto over the black lung compensation program, leading to 1200 workers going on strike. But seeing the inevitability of the legislation, he signed it.

The law mandated at least two annual inspections at above ground mines and four in underground mines. Miners had the right to request federal inspections. Violators were fined and could be criminally charged if egregiously negligent. Coal miners began to receive periodic x-ray exams for black lung (a process that however has become deeply corrupted and captured by industry) and the right to demand less dangerous work when doctors detected black lung. The law also created a federally administered black lung benefits program.

The lung of a miner killed by pneumoconiosis, better known as black lung.

The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was a precursor of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, passed the next year and providing a more comprehensive set of protection to all Americans at work. But like OSHA, the implementation of FCMHSA was limited as business began organizing against workplace safety enforcement. The mine owners challenged the constitutionality of the law and lost. But the tide would soon turn. In addition, these agencies take awhile to become effective, something the miners quickly realized when the Hurricane Creek Mine Disaster in 1970 killed another 38 workers in a mine with a long history of indifference to safety. In 1978, a further expansion of the law that would have granted workers themselves the right to test the air for dust was rejected as a violation of property rights in a newly conservative and anti-union America.

The same grassroots outrage that forced Boyle and the UMWA to support the legislation did not abate, leading to the challenge of Jock Yablonski to Boyle’s leadership. Yablonski ran for the presidency of the UMWA in 1969, announcing, “Today I am announcing my candidacy for the presidency of the United Mine Workers of America. I do so out of a deep awareness of the insufferable gap between the union leadership and the working miners that has bred neglect of miners’ needs and aspirations and generated a climate of fear and inhibition.” He ran on a platform of health and safety, including a greater emphasis on fighting against black lung.

Yablonski was “defeated,” in the sense that Boyle committed massive fraud to keep himself in office. A mere week after the legislation passed, Boyle had Yablonski murdered in his home by thugs. Miners for Democracy came out of these acts, demanding the overthrow of Boyle, which succeeded with federal supervisions for elections and Boyle’s arrest for the Yablonski murder.

As of 2007, over 600,000 miners and widows had received several billion dollars in benefits from the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.

Much of the information for this post came from Daniel Fox and Judith Stone, “Black Lung: Miners Militancy and Medical Uncertainty, 1968-1972,” in Judith Walzer Leavitt and Ronald L. Numbers, Sickness and Health in America: Readings in the History of Medicine and Public Health, Revised 3rd Edition, 1997.

This is the 86th post in this series. Earlier posts are archived here.

Comments (27)

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  1. Bruce Vail says:

    I’ve never seen a foto of a lung ravaged by coal dust like this. It’s more shocking than any statistic or tale of personal suffering….

    • fidelio says:

      This is why black-lung victims and their families probably spit when they say Paul Wheeler’s name, with a bitter, ironic emphasis on “Doctor”.

      Even with good safety laws which are fully and stringently enforced, mining in all forms is dangerous work.

    • Anna in PDX says:

      The Body Works exhibit, which I have now seen twice over a several-year period, had three lungs on exhibit – a healthy one, a smoker’s lung which was sort of gray and swollen, and a miner’s lung which was black and shrunken. It was one of the most horrifying things I have ever seen.

  2. fidelio says:

    One of HBO’s early made-for-TV movies. was about the killing of Yablonsky and his family. Charles Bronson (a son of the coal country himself) played Yablonsky, and Wilford Brimley was Tony Boyle, with Keanu Reaves as Aubran Martin, marginally compentent killer for hire and state’s witness.

  3. Bruce Vail says:

    An outstanding newspaper blog is the West Virginia Gazette’s Coal Tattoo, which tackles all coal-related subjects, including black lung. See this about recent reports of a resurgence in black lung cases:

    http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/2012/07/09/special-report-the-new-face-of-black-lung/

  4. J R in WV says:

    Eric,

    Thanks for your work on labor history and the politics of working class people. I see that there are relatively few comments on your historical articles, which is a shame. I guess a lot of people thing they already know enough about how workers have been and still are exploited by management.

    When I was 18 I spent a summer working at the family’s business after my freshman year at college – I was a summer replacement reporter in southern West Virginia. The big labor story in 1969 was an epidemic of wildcat strikes by the Black Lung organizations.

    I reported on non-coal miners affected by dust down-wind of coal preparation plants, and miners who couldn’t stand up for lack of oxygen in their bloodstream, because of lungs like the one in your story. My co-worker (there were two vacation relief summer reporters!) and I would drive into the coalfield after work and talk to miners around the 2nd shift 3rd shift changeover which was midnight or so.

    Mines would be “closed” because no miners showed up. There weren’t really picket lines, just some older guys who were company guys, foremen and supervisors, and they would shoot the breeze with youngsters with lots of (sometimes stupid in retrospect) questions.

    Later on in life my wife (my co-worker that long-ago summer) became an elected officer of her union, and we learned a lot about management and government harassment of union folks. Now I’m retired, and still worried about exploitation of workers, because the retired have less leverage to protect themselves than workers do.

    They can take your pension or health care away, and you can’t even protest by denying them your work in a strike!

    And as reported in the Charleston Gazette on their Coal Tattoo column, miners are again becoming victims of black lung, a perfectly preventable disease of the dark ages, come again to torment the working man.

    Not to mention the Upper Big Branch explosion. That was nothing more or less than murder for profit.

    Keep up the good work!!

    J R in WV

    • Ahuitzotl says:

      I think many readers may be in the boat I’m in – fascinated to read these, but without much in the way to contribute, and feeling its too serious a subject for the usual inane comedies.

      • Anna in PDX says:

        Yeah, that’s definitely me. If I had another lifetime I think it would be great to study this stuff for a living but for now I will just read Erik’s series.

        • Gary K says:

          Yes, please, Erik, keep this up. FWIW, as one of your older readers my grim reaction often is “That happened at a place I know” or “Why didn’t I pay attention when this was happening?”

          • Erik Loomis says:

            I do appreciate all these comments since the lack of them on the posts does sometimes make me wonder whether people are really reading them. The lack of attention this stuff gets on Twitter when I get a bunch of retweets for whatever stupid thing I say about sports or music is also irritating. I will have some more thoughts about this when this series gets to 100, at which point I’m going to write up a few thoughts about its reception.

            • Joseph Slater says:

              They are EXTREMELY valuable for folks interested in labor, even if they don’t generate as many comments as condiment-related posts. Keep up the truly excellent work.

            • Hogan says:

              Stunned silence is not inattention, although it may feel the same at your end.

            • Linnaeus says:

              I don’t say more on these threads because I don’t want them to become historians-talking-to-each-other discussions (as much as I enjoy those) that might bore others.

            • eponymous says:

              Erik,

              One of the things I enjoy about LG&M is your posts on labor history. I myself have become more aware/appreciative of the efforts of those who struggled/fought/died for the rights of labor now that I am more involved with my own union (as an executive committee member that represents faculty at a large mid-western community college).

              I do hope you continue with this going forward – you are definitely my “go to” person with all things labor related, especially your posts regarding labor and higher education issues.

      • SV says:

        Seconded! (Fourthed?) And, holy shit, 90 000 (reported) deaths? Even over seventy years, and in such a populous country, that’s an astonishing number.

    • Ralph Wiggum says:

      I always look forward to these posts, and it’s one of the reasons I keep coming back to this blog. What I find incredible is how well-researched they all are, on top of your workload and your other frequent, high-quality postings. Keep ‘em coming!

  5. Anna in PDX says:

    This post made me go back and read the one about the murder of Yablonski. I don’t know how I missed that one. I was actually born in Bluefield, WV (my parents, Ohio natives, both taught at Concord College in West Virginia for a short time and we left when I was four). Have always been interested in the Appalachians and in the coal mining issue. Thanks again for this series.

  6. RobertL says:

    Erik – greetings from Brisbane, Australia. I’ve only recently found this website via Twitter.

    I love these historical posts. I don’t know why they attract fewer comments but I thought that I would make one to say, “keep up the good work!”

  7. Joe B. says:

    I love this series, Erik. There isn’t really anywhere else on the internet that covers labor history as broadly as you have here. The posts on coal mining are particularly good. I was a labor history student studying coal mining in this era and there was a lot here I didn’t know about.

  8. LuigiDaMan says:

    Being a northern Ohioan who went to school in Appalachia/Southeastern Ohio (Ohio U.) in the late sixties, this recitation of history seems like yesterday. I knew a lot of coal miners and people who made their money off the mines. My dad worked one week in the mines (in the twenties)before walking away and never coming back. Said he’d rather starve than do that (which his Dad did) for a living.

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