Congressman Perry’s Latest Attack on Coal Miners Could Prove Deadly

Source: PennLive

Black lung disease in coal miners has spiked in recent years, and we know that silica dust is to blame. Thanks to the leadership of people like Sen. Bob Casey and President Joe Biden, disabled miners with black lung will continue to receive their health benefits and current miners will soon be protected by an updated standard to limit their exposure to silica dust.

In a heartless move, U.S. Rep. Scott Perry put forward an amendment to a bill funding the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Agency that would prohibit it from finalizing, implementing, or enforcing the standard.

This standard will save lives and help ensure miners aren’t stricken by this terrible and deadly disease. Every day, companies’ negligence is putting lives in danger. Instead of standing with coal miners, Perry is standing with the companies—just like his colleagues who passed the amendment by a voice vote.

We’ll never know exactly who voted for this terrible amendment, but we do know who authored it. And we know that if it becomes law, Scott Perry’s latest attack on workers could prove deadly to coal miners in our country.

Jason Walsh is the Executive Director of the BlueGreen Alliance, in Washington, D.C.

Associate Membership Spotlight

Jama Grundy

 

This month’s UMWA Associate Membership Spotlight casts a brilliant light on Jama Grundy, a devoted and outstanding member of the United Mine Workers of America. Sister Grundy embodies the strength and solidarity that define the UMWA community.

“Her spirit, determination, and willingness to lend a helping hand wherever needed make her a cherished gem in the union,” International Vice President Mike Dalpiaz said. 

Jama Grundy’s story is one of unwavering service to working families and her UMWA community. With nearly a century of wisdom, she exemplifies the true meaning of dedication and commitment.

Her tireless efforts and enduring passion for the cause serve as an inspiration to all. In a world where time may slow one down, Sister Grundy continues to stand strong, advocating for the welfare of her fellow union members and the betterment of the broader community. Her legacy is a testament to the enduring strength and commitment that define the UMWA, making her this month’s shining star in the Associate Membership Spotlight.

 

Associate Membership Spotlight

Wilma Maggio

 

This month’s UMWA Associate Membership Spotlight shines on a remarkable centenarian, Wilma Maggio. At 100 years young, Wilma’s unwavering commitment to the United Mine Workers of America is nothing short of inspiring. “I realize what the union does for me, and I believe that if the union supports someone or something, then it is for the right reason… to help the membership,” Wilma said.

Wilma’s connection to the UMWA is deeply rooted in her family’s history. Her late husband, Carl Maggio, spent over six decades working tirelessly in mines throughout Colorado and Utah and was a staunch supporter of the UMWA. Together, they understood the power of unity in the fight for workers’ rights.

“We are so thrilled to have people like Sister Maggio as a part of this great union. We are strong because of individuals like her,” shares District 22 Vice President Mike Dalpiaz. Wilma’s resilience and dedication to the UMWA serve as a reminder of the importance of solidarity in the ongoing battle for fair labor practices, making her an enduring symbol of strength and unity within the union’s ranks.

 

Government, advocates eye new federal silica-dust standard to stem resurgence among coal miners

Date: 9/24/2023
Author: JUSTIN VELLUCCI
Photos: SHANE DUNLAP
Tribune-Review

 

Mark Rankin left the coal mines, but the coal mines haven’t left Mark Rankin.

Stocky and broad shouldered, the retired Uniontown-area coal miner trekked to a Washington County health clinic to see if recent coughing and tightness in his chest could be black lung. Rankin worked for years stripping coal in Soberdash Coal Yard near Connellsville, Fayette County.

Sporting denim, a shiny belt buckle bearing an M, and cowboy boots, Rankin spoke in clipped sentences at Lungs at Work, a black lung clinic in Peters Township — the closest one to Pittsburgh. He punctuated occasional words with a slight drawl.

Mark Rankin, 73, a former coal miner of Haydentown, undergoes testing for black lung at Lungs at Work, a black lung clinic for coal miners in Washington County.



“I’ve had (breathing problems) before, but I never paid attention to it,” said Rankin, 73, of Haydentown, a postage stamp-sized community in Fayette County. “I always thought that if something’s not bothering you too much, don’t bother it.”

Black lung is debilitating coal miners at its highest rates in 50 years. Formally called coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, black lung occurs when miners inhale coal dust. Over time, continued exposure to coal dust scars the lungs, impairing the ability to breathe, according to the American Lung Association.

The federal government and advocacy groups are stepping up efforts to combat the resurgence.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration, an agency of the federal Department of Labor, plans to enact a proposal restricting how much silica dust a miner can breathe during a shift.

Because coal seams are smaller than in previous decades, miners now must cut through more rock, MSHA said. Prolonged exposure to silica — the sometimes white, sometimes pink dust produced when cutting rock such as quartz — may cause black lung, other lung diseases and cancer, medical experts said.

A comment period closed Sept. 11 on the proposal, which MSHA hopes will stem the black lung spike. Officials expect to implement the new standard after announcing a timeline this fall.

In late August, Rankin sat in a 6-foot-tall plethysmograph cylinder at the Lungs at Work clinic, clamped his nose shut and prepared to test his breathing.

“Normal breathing, OK?” patient care coordinator Joanna Szalay told him.

“Now, go!”

Rankin puffed furiously into a mouthpiece.

“In and out! Faster, faster!” Szalay blared. “Take a deep breath in, now push it out! You keep blowing, you keep pushing!”

After a few takes, Rankin was exhausted. He put his hand to his chest.

“I can feel that right there now. I can feel that it’s tightened up since I started,” Rankin said. “But I never let that stop me. I always look at it this way: ain’t nothing easy, not about anything.”

Now he waits.

The clinic said, even if the tests indicate black lung, it will take Rankin 18 months or longer for the federal government to decide whether he’s eligible for black lung benefits.

Registered respiratory therapist Joanna Szaley, left, works with Mark Rankin, a former coal miner of Haydentown, during a breathing test at Lungs at Work, a black lung clinic for coal miners in Washington County.

 

Black lung resurgence

Rates of black lung have more than doubled in the past 15 years, and incidence of the disease’s most severe form are at the highest levels in more than a generation, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

Today, 1 in 5 veteran coal miners in central Appalachia will be diagnosed with black lung, officials said.

Pennsylvania, which sits in what is called northern Appalachia, is rich in coal history.

In 2021, the state was the nation’s third-largest coal producer, behind Wyoming and West Virginia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. There are more than 2,100 mines in Pennsylvania employing more than 11,000 people, the DEP and MSHA said.

Allegheny County has only seven active mines — none in the City of Pittsburgh — but there are 18 in Westmoreland County, 32 in Greene County and 39 in Butler County, the state Department of Environmental Protection said. Lawrence County tops the regional list with 50 active mines.

The region also is home to the largest underground coal mine complex in North America: the Pennsylvania Mining Complex, located in Greene and Washington counties. The Consol Energy-owned facility produces about 28.5 million tons of coal each year — more than half the coal Pennsylvania produced in 2022, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said.

Consol Energy, a coal producer based in Canonsburg, Washington County, and others with mining interests in Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia did not return calls or emails seeking comment for this story.

There also are mine operations in Armstrong County, which sits just outside what the U.S. Census Bureau calls the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area. Last year, the DEP granted Rosebud Mining, a Kittanning-based company that operates several local mines, a permit for a new, 280-acre surface mine in Cambria and Somerset counties.

 

Map courtesy Appalachian Regional Commission

 

Black lung kills 1 of every 3 miners

Black lung has no cure. And it kills.

The progressive disease kills about 1,000 miners a year — and more than 76,000 in the past 50 years, according to MSHA. That’s almost one-third of the 235,000 U.S. coal miners who died between 1979 and 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Progressive massive fibrosis, or PMF, is the most severe form of black lung. Coal miners reported about 4,700 PMF cases to the federal government between 1970 and 2016, a 2018 study in Annals of the American Thoracic Society found.

PMF cases among black lung benefits claimants fell from 404 in 1978 to a low of 18 cases in 1988, the study found. But that number shot up to 353 cases by 2014.

A total of 67 PMF cases were reported at Pennsylvania clinics from 2019 to 2023, according to the University of Illinois Black Lung Data and Resource Center.

The center could not provide the total number of Pennsylvania miners killed by black lung. Neither could MSHA.

In addition to Lungs at Work, there’s a second Washington County black lung clinic in Fredericktown. UPMC, which declined comment for this story, operates another in Altoona.

The new MSHA rule — which applies to all miners, not just those mining coal — aligns the industry with 2016 Occupational Health and Safety Administration guidelines, said MSHA Assistant Secretary Christopher Williamson.

Coal accounts for just 20% of operating mines nationwide; the rest mine metals and nonmetals.

“It affords all miners the same level of protection other workers have,” Williamson said. “We know silica is a toxic substance, and we know what the health effects of it are. … That’s what we’re trying to prevent with this proposed rule.”

 

Retired coal miner Cecil Palmer, pictured at his home in Marion County, W.Va., was diagnosed with black lung in 2017. His brother, who worked with him in the region’s coal mines, also has black lung.

 

Feds take heed

Government officials are paying attention.

In 1969, Congress enacted the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act to establish black lung benefits. In 1972 came the Black Lung Benefits Act, which started monthly payments to miners with black lung.

Black lung cases dropped through the 1990s. By 2012, though, the rate had increased tenfold, the Center for Public Integrity reported.

In 2014, pushing back on a rising tide of black lung cases, MSHA restricted how much coal dust a miner could breathe during each shift. The new rule on silica was under review even before the 2014 coal-dust restrictions, MSHA said.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, and other elected leaders have advocated to update miner health laws. Last year, President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which continues to secure federal black lung benefits for sickened miners.

Coal miners, unions, industry groups and elected leaders told the Tribune-Review they support the new silica dust rule.

“The safety and health of our nation’s miners is the primary concern of all our members,” said Ashley Burke of National Mining Association, a 250-member industry group. “Over the last two decades, effective ventilation controls, implementation of industry best practices, strict adherence to mine ventilation control plans, increased operator and miner safety awareness, and the 2014 dust rule have all contributed to exponentially lower dust levels inside the mine.”

Casey called the proposal “a step in the right direction.”

“Coal miners have moved our nation forward for generations, risking their lives and their long-term health to power our factories and heat our homes,” Casey told the Trib. “We also have an obligation to miners suffering from black lung disease, as well as their families.”

This year, Casey pressed the Government Accountability Office to reevaluate black lung benefits. Such benefits are tied to federal pay scales and not the Consumer Price Index, which measures inflation, his office said.

Some worry those benefits haven’t kept up with inflation.

When black lung benefits started in 1969, single miners received $144.50 per month, according to an Appalachian Voices and Appalachian Citizens Law Center report. Adjusted for inflation, the 2023 figure should be $1,204.70; current law, though, allows for $738 per month.

Rebecca Shelton, director of policy at Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Whitesburg, Ky., supports the new silica dust rule — but with reservations.

“The Mine Safety Act says that, legally, any mining operation should not impair the health of the worker,” Shelton said. “Even if this rule goes forward, a lot of people are going to get sick and a lot of families are going to continue to be devastated by this illness, even though we know it’s preventable.

“And the gut punch is that we’re saying, ‘That’s OK,’ because we want to run more coal.”

 

New rule’s effect watched

MSHA’s new rule, the first for silica, restricts the dust exposure to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air for a miner’s eight-hour shift. For reference, NASA said a typical droplet of rain weighs about 33,000 micrograms.

The proposal also includes exposure sampling and corrective actions such as penalties when exposure exceeds permissible limits, said Williamson of MSHA. This supplements MSHA inspections of U.S. mines that occur four times a year.

But some say the proposal lacks teeth.

“I think (the new rule) has the potential to do a lot of good, but as it’s written, I’m not sure it’s going to end this epidemic,” said Dr. Drew A. Harris, medical director of the black lung program at Stone Mountain Health Services in Virginia. “We can design a rule with good intentions, but if companies don’t follow those rules, it won’t help.

“I’m not convinced this is going to be the end of black lung.”

United Mine Workers of America, an 80,000-member union based in Virginia, feels stringent enforcement is essential.

“We have known for years that rising levels of silica in mine atmospheres was causing a dramatic increase in progressive massive fibrosis,” UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts said. “But this fight is far from over. This is the first step of many that will be required.

“We must ensure that mine operators follow the rule, the government enforces it and penalizes those who violate it.”

Enforcement manpower is an issue, Shelton said. Since 2013, MSHA’s staff numbers— or full-time equivalents — have dropped about 30%.

A group of 35 organizations, including some in Western Pennsylvania, pushed U.S. senators in May to increase MSHA funding in 2024 to $447 million, “particularly for staff to increase inspections at coal mines,” according to a letter obtained by the Tribune-Review.

Biden allotted $438 million in his 2024 budget to MSHA, a 13% increase from this year. Congress has not yet taken action. It must enact the spending package by Sept. 30 or risk a government shutdown.

“This administration has prioritized both miners’ safety and their health,” Williamson said. “Whatever resources Congress gives us, we’re going to make the most of it.”

 

Registered respiratory therapist Joanna Szalay works with retired coal miner Larry McKelvey, 72, of Somerset to test his breathing at a black lung clinic for coal miners, one of two in Washington County.

 

Miners’ stories

Cecil Palmer toiled for 15 years at the #2 mine in Blacksville, W.Va., about 20 miles northwest of Morgantown and just a mile off the Pennsylvania border. A sign near the now-shuttered mine marks the location of the Mason-Dixon line.

In 2017, about five years before he retired, Palmer started having trouble breathing. One day, he barely could scale the 13 steps from the first floor of his house to his bedroom.

“By the time I got to the top of those steps, I thought I was gonna pass out — it was that bad,” said Palmer, 63, who lives on a four-acre property with rolling hills outside Fairview, W.Va. “I just couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was having a heart attack.”

He was diagnosed with black lung in 2017. He started receiving benefits about 18 months later.

His brother, John, worked at the same mine for decades. He also was diagnosed with black lung.

Today, John Palmer sleeps assisted by oxygen. He said he’s lucky if he gets four hours of sleep a night.

“In my heart, all those men I worked with for 35, 40 years, they all have black lung — and to the government, to the companies, we were just a number,” said John Palmer, 68, who lives in Monongah, W.Va., about 12 miles away from his brother.

“If they told me, ‘You should have a respirator,’ I’d wear one,” he added. “I know how it was at #2, and I tried to make it as best I could for my men. If my men were working, I was working. And I’m paying the fiddler now.”

Coal is in the brothers’ blood.

The Palmers’ dad, Cecil Sr., worked 11 years in West Virginia mines and developed emphysema, his sons said. He died suddenly in 1967 following a heart attack. His youngest son was just 8.

But with Cecil and John Palmer, the coal mining legacy ends.

“Coal mining’s been good to my family, I can’t lie,” said John Palmer, a former UMWA president for Local 1570. “But my boy never had to go into a coal mine — and I thank God.”

Cecil Palmer has two children and, with wife Barbara, three stepchildren.

“I wouldn’t let them go into those coal mines now,” he said. “No way in hell.”

Gary Hairston worked for more than 27 years in places like West Virginia’s Tommy Creek Mine or New River Coalfield, whose mining history dates to the 1870s.

Hairston, now president of the advocacy group National Black Lung Association, was diagnosed with the most severe form of black lung in 2002 — at age 48 — after battling pneumonia for a year.

“We said we wouldn’t get it. We said we couldn’t get it,” said Hairston, now 69. “You don’t think you can get it until you’ve got it.”

 

Mark Rankin, a former coal miner of Haydentown, undergoes testing for black lung at Lungs at Work, a black lung clinic for coal miners in Washington County.

 

At a black lung clinic

Lynda Glagola is a respiratory therapist who moved to the Pittsburgh area 45 years ago.

In 2002, after treating miners at a Canonsburg Hospital black lung program, she founded Lungs at Work. Since then, the clinic has been based 21 miles outside of Downtown Pittsburgh in an unassuming Route 19 office park in Peters Township, Washington County.

“If you’re talking Pennsylvania, this is where the coal miners are,” she said.

Glagola has helped diagnosis thousands of black lung cases — she estimated about 500 or 600 each year. Lungs at Work has raised more than $30 million in black lung benefits since starting advocacy work in 2005.

Clinic doctor David Celko grew up in the Harwick section of Springdale Township, where in 1904 a mine blast killed 179 miners. It remains one of the worst mine tragedies in American history.

 

Mark Rankin, a former coal miner of Haydentown, undergoes testing for black lung at Lungs at Work, a black lung clinic for coal miners in Washington County.

 

“My respect for miners has expanded exponentially as I’ve worked with these guys,” Celko said. “They’re very, very proud, hard-working, God-fearing men and women. And they tend to minimize any symptoms they have.”

M7, the public-relations agency for Consol Energy, did not return multiple calls and emails seeking comment. Officials from Patriot Coal Corp. — a now-bankrupt company that operated several mines in Appalachia, including one where Rankin worked — did not return calls seeking comment. Blackhawk Mining, which is based in Kentucky and reportedly acquired multiple Patriot Coal mines, also did not return calls.

Occupational hazard: Impaired breathing

Bethel Brock dropped out of high school at age 15 and started working alongside his father in the southwestern Virginia coal mines.

He worked 27 years for Westmoreland Coal Co. and was diagnosed with black lung in 2003. He started getting government benefits in 2015.

Today, at 83, Brock requires the constant use of oxygen.

“I pray a lot for my lungs to last,” he said. “I pray that I don’t have to smother someday.”

Willie Dodson, central Appalachian field coordinator for Appalachian Voices, said he has “never met a miner who is older than 40 who doesn’t have some degree of impaired breathing.”

“‘I was bulletproof till the day I could hardly walk out of the mine’ — I’ve heard that a lot,” Dodson said. “If these problems aren’t addressed, in 10, 20 years, what we’ll see is that who’s getting black lung is not going to change at all.”

Brock’s legs, weakened from a lack of oxygenated blood, keep him from tending a garden where he has planted vegetables for years.

Still, Brock keeps active.

When his mine closed in 1995, the miner, then 55, pursued a law degree at the University of Virginia. After graduating, he worked with a lawyer for eight years on coal miners’ black lung cases.

“We have an epidemic of black lung,” Brock said. “We have miners in their 30s waiting on lung transplants.”

He paused.

“I’ve been blessed.”

Local Union 717 Ratifies New Contract

 

On June 16, 2023, Local Union 717 members at the Rem Arms plant in Ilion, New York, ratified a new contract, bringing an end to their long struggle to preserve jobs and the UMWA after Remington Arms filed for bankruptcy in 2020 and shuttered the Ilion plant.

As a result of the 2020 bankruptcy, the company’s assets were divided in parts and sold to different investors across the country. One of those investors, the Roundhill Group, LLC, successfully bid on the Ilion property and equipment in a shuttered Alabama plant at the UMWA’s urging. The company began hiring workers back to the plant in early 2021, when it signed a bridge agreement with the UMWA that provided basic protections for the workforce while a new agreement was negotiated.

“When Remington Arms filed for bankruptcy in 2020, it looked as if the Ilion plant would close for good,” said President Roberts.  “The bankruptcy put tremendous pressure on our members of Local Union 717, their families and their communities, but we never quit fighting for those jobs.”

“We were successful in encouraging a new buyer that would keep the plant open and secure the jobs and livelihoods of our members.  The struggle then was to hash out a collective bargaining agreement with the new owner, which we have now accomplished after more than two years,” Roberts said.

 

President Roberts wearing his Remington Arms ball cap attended a rally with members of Local Union 717 and others on November 12, 2020.

 

The mounting pressure on our members at the plant in Ilion began back in 2020 when 585 UMWA workers received a letter in the mail advising them they would be terminated.  “Our membership was in shock, devastated, full of fear of the unknown,” said International District 2 Vice President Chuck Knisell.

“Imagine working for a company for 20, 30 years and without any notice at all having to figure out how to support your family.  It is without a doubt the worst feeling in the world.  Over the last couple of long years, our membership has stuck together and rallied, prayed and hoped for a new contract.  Because of our membership of Local 717 and their solidarity, that’s what happened,” Knisell said. 

From the time Remington first filed for bankruptcy, UMWA members in Ilion found themselves gaining support from local businesses, churches and politicians.  Members of Local 717 were able to provide food on the tables for their families and provide for their children through the holiday seasons due to donations from various food banks, charities and other community members who supported them.   

“There is strength in numbers and when you have a community that is willing to dive in and help from the very beginning, that is just a tremendous thing to do,” said President Roberts. 

“Our members in Ilion have been through a lot since 2018, but they never gave up, they never gave in and they never wavered from their determination to fight for their jobs and their union.  They were the driving force to reaching a collective bargaining agreement. I thank them and the members of their community who showed support during a very troublesome couple of years,” Roberts said.

 


Timeline of Major Events

  • March, 2018, Remington Arms files for bankruptcy, emerges relatively the same.
  • July, 2020, Remington Arms files for bankruptcy a second time; company announces it is shutting down Ilion plant.
  • October, 2020, Remington Arms lays off 545 hourly workers.
  • November-December, 2020, Local 717 leads weekly rallies outside of the plant.
  • UMWA files several motions in bankruptcy court to get some level of compensation for workers, ultimately wins compensation for some vacation pay.
  • March, 2021, UMWA reaches bridge agreement with RemArms, LLC, to reopen the plant.
  • April, 2021, plant reopens, begins recalling UMWA members.
  • August, 2022, the recall members list was exhausted. RemArms began hiring new workers off the street. 
  • September, 2022, UMWA members rally in Ilion, New York.
  • 2021-2023, negotiations ongoing between UMWA and Remington Arms.
  • June, 2023, tentative agreement is reached, contract ratified by Local Union 717 members.

 


Remington Arms has employed thousands of American workers and created economic prosperity in central New York for almost 200 years.  The UMWA is proud to represent those workers and the communities where they live. —Cecil E. Roberts —

 

Picketing outside of the Remington Arms plant on November 12, 2020.

 

Solidarity was key to victory

The mounting pressure on our members at the plant in Ilion began back in 2020 when 585 UMWA workers received a letter in the mail advising them they would be terminated.  “Our membership was in shock, devastated, full of fear of the unknown,” said International District 2 Vice President Chuck Knisell.

“Imagine working for a company for 20, 30 years and without any notice at all having to figure out how to support your family.  It is without a doubt the worst feeling in the world.  Over the last couple of long years, our membership has stuck together and rallied, prayed and hoped for a new contract.  Because of our membership of Local 717 and their solidarity, that’s what happened,” Knisell said. 

From the time Remington first filed for bankruptcy, UMWA members in Ilion found themselves gaining support from local businesses, churches and politicians.  Members of Local 717 were able to provide food on the tables for their families and provide for their children through the holiday seasons due to donations from various food banks, charities and other community members who supported them.   

“There is strength in numbers and when you have a community that is willing to dive in and help from the very beginning, that is just a tremendous thing to do,” said President Roberts. 

“Our members in Ilion have been through a lot since 2018, but they never gave up, they never gave in and they never wavered from their determination to fight for their jobs and their union.  They were the driving force to reaching a collective bargaining agreement. I thank them and the members of their community who showed support during a very troublesome couple of years,” Roberts said.

 

Rem Arms is Ilion.  Ilion is Rem Arms

“We worked tirelessly since 2020 trying to convince the company to do the right thing, which was simply to hold up its end of the bargain it made with our members,” said District 2 Representative Jamie Rudwall. 

The newly ratified collective bargaining agreement expires June 15, 2026. “We have represented workers at the Ilion plant since 1995,” said Secretary-Treasurer Sanson.  “We have close to 300 members back to work at the plant now.  We are extremely proud of their perseverance over the last couple of years.  It was a long process, but our members can finally have a little bit of peace of mind knowing that their jobs are secured.  At the end of the day, solidarity prevailed,” Sanson said.

“We have been at the negotiating table with Roundhill Group for nearly two years fighting for a collective bargaining agreement.  Because of the continued efforts of strength and solidarity from the workers, the new agreement would not have been possible.   —Brian Sanson—

The legacy of the United Mine Workers of America

This Labor Day, we explore the history of a labor organization that spurred the growth of many others in the U.S.—and made a lasting impact on economic justice for all.

DATE: 8/24/2023
SOURCE: AFSC
AUTHOR: Rick Wilson, Director of AFSC’s West Virginia Economic Justice Project

 

Photo: AFSC Archives

 

In happier times, my home state of West Virginia was known as a union stronghold. This tradition of labor action and struggle goes back to at least 1877, when railroad workers in Martinsburg set off something close to a nationwide general strike. 

It continued as coal miners faced company and government repression, including brutal private mine guards, military intervention, airstrikes, legal injunctions, arrests, and imprisonments.  

On my watch with AFSC, I’ve tried to support the struggles of unions on picket lines and at the policy level, ranging from metal workers to building trades to retail workers to teachers and school service workers. Sometimes things got a little wild.  

I’ve made it an informal but unbreakable rule that whenever a good labor dustup happens within my range to drop everything and show up. I’m probably at least as loyal to unions as to the church I belong to … but if I had to choose between them, all bets are off. 

For people unfamiliar with the labor movement, there are three main kinds of unions: craft unions representing primarily skilled trades; industrial unions representing workers at all skill levels in a sector; and public employee unions such as those representing education workers or government employees. The AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. federation of unions, comprises around 60 unions of different types and industries. 

Where I come from, you’ll hear people talk about this or that union, but when they say the union, there’s one they have in mind: the United Mine Workers of America. Coincidentally or not, AFSC has a long history of supporting this union and the workers and communities it represents. Over a century ago, AFSC began providing food assistance and supporting economic alternatives for unemployed miners and their families. More recently, it has supported UMWA members in strikes, legislative struggles, mine safety, and corporate bankruptcies that threaten retirees and surviving family members. 

People outside Appalachia may think of the UMWA, if at all, as a relic of an earlier age and a dying and dirty industry. In fact, even though its membership has dramatically declined over the last decades, it has arguably had the greatest impact on economic justice of any single organization. To the extent there’s still a middle class in this country, much of that is due to its direct and indirect influence.  

The UMWA was founded in 1890 by the merger of the Knights of Labor Trade Assembly No. 135 and the National Progressive Miners Union. At a time when most unions represented skilled craft workers—mostly white, U.S. born, and male—the new union’s first goal was “to unite in one organization, regardless of creed, color or nationality, all workmen eligible for membership, employed in and around coal mines, coal washers, and coke ovens on the American Continent.” It was thus an early example of an industrial union, one that tried to represent all workers in a sector. 

 

AFSC Archives

 

The union’s progress in West Virginia was slow and sometimes bloody. It was long known that the state was rich in coal and other minerals, but it required the coming of the railroads to make large-scale extraction economically feasible. Outside investors began gobbling up land and mineral rights and displacing mountain families, generally with the support of state politicians.  

Let’s just say the good guys lost that one.  

After wiping out most of the state’s old-growth forests, corporations began building coal camps in isolated mountain communities and instituting a system of total control, including company towns, company stores, company doctors, armed company mine “guards” to enforce obedience up to and including the use of violence, and company-controlled schools and churches. In many cases, workers were paid with company scrip or currency. Those with the temerity to organize or strike faced eviction from company housing, at the very least. 

Companies actively recruited African Americans from the deep South, mostly white locals, and recent European immigrants to the camps. They hoped a “judicious mix” of different ethnicities would prevent union organization. 

They were wrong. 

From Colorado to West Virginia miners struggled, sometimes physically, for the right to organize, with something like guerilla warfare breaking out in my state during the Paint and Cabin Creek areas in 1912-1913. The struggle inspired writer Ralph Chaplin to pen the song “Solidarity Forever,” an international anthem of the working class. More militant struggles followed, including the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest workers’ uprising in American history. So far. 

It wasn’t until the New Deal era that the right of miners to organize was firmly established. For a generation or two… 

And in the 1930s, the UMWA, under the leadership of the theatrical and sometimes confrontational John L. Lewis, launched the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which initiated vast organizing drives in steel, auto, rubber, and other industries. Unafraid to confront the highest levels of authority, he once said “you can’t mine coal with bayonets.” 

During the CIO organizing drive, he proclaimed with characteristic flourish, “Let the workers organize. Let the toilers assemble. Let their crystallized voice proclaim their injustices and demand their privileges. Let all thoughtful citizens sustain them, for the future of Labor is the future of America.” 

These organizing drives eventually won union recognition along with higher wages, better benefits, and improved working conditions for millions of American men and women. These new industrial unions, such as the United Auto Workers (UAW), would become strong financial and political supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. 

This was not lost on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an ardent supporter of the labor movement. In his words, “During the ’30s, wages were a secondary issue; to have a job at all was the difference between the agony of starvation and a flicker of life. The nation, now so vigorous, reeled and tottered almost to total collapse. The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.  

“Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival, but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the ’30s the wave of union organization crested over our nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.” 

The wave that Dr. King spoke of has unfortunately receded over the last 40 years, with devastating consequences. But it remains an example of what can be done when working people act in solidarity. 

So year-round, but especially on May Day and Labor Day, I celebrate the victories and mourn the defeats of the world’s diverse labor unions. However, one union has pride of place. In more ways than one, it lit the way in many dark places. 

Associate Membership Spotlight

Carol Smith

 

Carol Smith has been an associate member since 2018 but has supported the UMWA for far much longer.

Her husband, Carl “Sonny” Smith, is a retired coal miner from Local Union 2161 in District 12. Carol has lobbied on Capitol Hill fighting for health care and pensions, made phone calls to politicians, attended as many rallies as possible, and said many prayers for her UMWA brothers and sisters.

“Carol has been to Washington, DC, helping fight to keep our members and their families’ health care and pensions,” said International District 12 Vice President Steve Earle.

“She is an extremely dedicated associate member and we are beyond grateful to have her.”

 

Lorin E. Kerr Scholarship Winners!

The UMWA has announced the winners of the 2023-2024 Lorin E. Kerr Scholarship. Each of the winners will receive $2,500 this academic year to assist them in meeting their educational goals.

 

Tyler Leonard

Tyler Leonard is the grandson of Local Union 1810 member Lawrence Leonard, Sr., in District 31.

“My parents struggled with fair wages in a labor market that does not benefit those who work hard with no education,” said Tyler. “I want to make a difference in the labor movement by helping workers and their families.’

Tyler is from Bellaire, Ohio, and graduated from St. John Central High School. He is extremely passionate about politics and is currently attending Columbus State Community College majoring in political science.

After this semester, he will attend West Liberty University to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science.

Upon graduation, Tyler plans to enter law school at Ohio State University. “My goal is to practice law and become a judge within the Supreme Court of the United States,” said Tyler. “I plan on utilizing this scholarship to acquire my degree in political science and then move into law school.

I have been inducted into the Phi Theta Kappa national honor society and plan on coming home with my degree to give back to the community that raised me.”

 

 

Christa Bedford

Christa Bedford is the granddaughter of Local Union 2245 member Terry Lathem in District 20.

“Safety should be the number one priority in the workplace,” said Christa. “A company that cares for its workers is a company that will achieve great success.”

Christa is from Lake View, Alabama, and graduated from Brookwood High School. She is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the University of Alabama, with the goal of becoming a pediatric oncology nurse.

“I plan to nurture all future patients and genuinely care for them as needed,” said Christa. “I am passionate about my education and am constantly trying to better myself and the people around me.”

“I plan to further my education at the University of Alabama Capstone College of Nursing,” said Christa.

“I am committed to decreasing my student debt as much as possible so that I can focus on helping others.”

Christa is a member of the Student Government Association as an Ambassador, on Green Team, National Technical Honors Society, and Beta Club.