special message to Congress in March 1969, newly elected President Nixon endorsed new health and safety measures for coal mines. The result was the Coal Mine Safety Act of 1969. The Act required the Department of the Interior to set safety standards and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to set health standards for coal mines. It authorized funds for health and safety research. It required each mine to be inspected at least four times a year, and established civil and criminal penalties for those who violated the Act. These provisions of the Act were relatively uncontroversial given the recent spate of mining disasters and the national government’s prior involvement in mine safety. What was novel, and more controversial, was the inclusion of compensation benefits for the victims of black lung disease and their families. Legislators devoted an inordinate amount of time debating this section of the bill. Nixon at one point considered vetoing the entire package because of the new Black Lung program. 25
The program’s road to enactment was a strange and bumpy one. It started with a renegade group of miners who joined in early 1968 to push for better black lung benefits. Their initial target was not the national government, nor was it the state government, even though workers’ compensation laws in most coal mining states failed to cover black lung disease.26 Their initial target was the United Mine Workers of America (UMW). In the wake of Farmington, the head of the UMW had publicly “absolved Consolidation Coal of responsibility, explaining that ‘as long as we mine coal, there is always this inherent danger ... This happens to be one of the better companies’” (Lewis-Beck and Alford 1980: 746- 47). While such a view outraged many miners, it was consistent with the UMW’s historic emphasis on wages and benefits to the exclusion of occupational health. The renegades succeeded in passing a series of resolutions at the 1968 UMW convention that directed union leaders to push employers for better compensation for various dust diseases. Nevertheless, when the union finalized a new contract with mine operators in October 1968, there was no mention of workplace safety or occupational disease.
Union leaders’ intransigence, coupled with the Farmington mine explosion, helped to fuel the growth of local Black Lung Associations. By the end of 1968, the cause had been joined by a handful of doctors, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and a variety of activists linked to VISTA and other Great Society programs. By early 1969, legislation had been introduced but not approved in the West Virginia state legislature. Miners staged a wildcat strike in February, prompting legislators to pass and Governor Moore to sign a bill adding coverage for coal dust diseases to that state’s worker compensation program. Only then did the mines reopen.
The story might have ended there but for the damage done to the UMW. Union leaders recognized that they risked losing the support of rank-and-file members unless they produced a major victory concerning occupational health, and black lung in particular. And they needed a win fast. UMW officials thus looked to Washington, where coal mine safety legislation was already working its way through Congress. The bill that reached the Senate floor in September 1969 made no mention of compensation for black lung. With