Eastgulf, West Virginia is the location of the first mining strike of 1969 at the East Gulf Mine near Rhodell in Raleigh County. This strike, which occurred on February 18, 1969, sparked mass walkouts throughout the coalfields of southern West Virginia. The miners were protesting to get pneumoconiosis (black lung) recognized by law as a compensable disease. The movement escalated to the point in which 40,000 miners stopped work in the coal mines of West Virginia this year. The strikes led to Governor Arch Moore signing a bill which allowed compensation for miners with black lung. The media from these strikes led to nation-wide acknowledgement of the health issue and, in response, the United States Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which assisted miners across the nation suffering from black lung.
Black lung is a disease caused from prolonged exposure to
coal dust. As the coal mining industry expanded, mine workers began to complain
in droves about “miner’s asthma,” as the disease was called at the time. Even
more miners suffered from the disease as twentieth century mining mechanization
caused higher levels of coal dust to be present in the air of the mines.
Despite the number of miners suffering from the painful and sometimes deadly
condition, black lung was not recognized as being a debilitating sickness by
many doctors. Great Britain recognized pneumoconiosis as a compensatory sickness
in 1943, yet many in the United States continued to believe the mine workers
were complaining about black lung symptoms just to receive unfair compensation.1
The issue of black lung received national attention during
the media coverage of the explosion at the Consolidation Coal’s No. 9 mine at
Farmington, West Virginia. 78 miners died from this disaster and the event received
national media attention. This event proved to the public that coal mining
Three doctors campaigned widely at this time to get the
dangers of black lung recognized: Dr. Isadore E. Buff, Dr. Hawey Wells, and Dr.
Donald L. Rasmussen. These physicians would travel throughout coal mining
communities educating people on the illness. They also played central roles in preparing
the black lung bill and pressuring the state legislature to pass it. Their work
proved the doctors who argued that black lung was not a serious health threat
wrong.2 In December of 1968, against the wishes of the leadership of the United
Mine Workers of America, the Black Lung Association was formed in Montgomery.
This new group prepared a bill that would require miners suffering from black
lung to be compensated fairly for the preventable illness.
To gain attention and support for this bill, 282 miners at
the East Gulf Mine staged the first walkout on February 18, 1969. Within days,
the strikes spread and grew momentum throughout the southern coal fields. On
February 26, 2,000 miners marched to the state capital to demand immediate action
on the bill. When the legislature came back with a weak bill, all of the 40,000
miners in the state went on strike. This pressured the House and Senate to pass
a stronger bill to fairly compensate miners suffering from black lung. Miners
went back to work the morning after Governor Moore signed the bill on March 11.
This is both one of the largest and longest strikes on the
issue of occupational health in the history of the United States.3 These events
caused black lung to gain national attention and led to the passage of similar
laws in other states. It also pressured the United States Congress to pass the Coal
Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. This law placed strict standards on coal
dust levels deemed safe for miners and provided federal compensation for both
miners with black lung and widows left alone after their spouse died from the
The protests of 1969 changed the coal mining industry and
allowed for miners’ safety. One quote from Representative Ken Hechler, who
advocated for the passage of the West Virginia bill, sums up the success of
this monumental strike in which workers fought for their own rights:
The greatest heroes are you coal miners who have taken
your future in your hands and said: 'No longer are we going to live and work
and die like animals'”.4