Editor’s note: The People’s Tribune spoke with Michael Whitten, a former coal miner, who in December helped organize a protest in WV to pressure Congressional leaders to fund the Black Lung Disability Fund, which covers medical costs for miners with Black Lung who worked for bankrupt companies. But the industry is balking at the small tax they must pay.
Every time I’ve been to DC and I see coal miners trying to get healthcare and pensions, and they say they got it, they didn’t. It was only a temporary fix. No one is doing anything. The Democrats’ bill wanted to expand and not let the cuts happen but the bill didn’t go anywhere. As far as I know the Republicans didn’t have anything in their bill. There’s two bills in our state right now, but I’m not sure what either will take care of. Our State Senator Stollens admitted Black Lung is an epidemic. He said WV should learn from the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster where people died from an industrial job where they had no ventilation. They’d shoot into that tunnel, which was solid rock, and then go back in there. They had no fans. Guess a couple hundred people died. There’s a graveyard up there. This was in the late 30s or 40s.
They just started a Black Lung Association near me in Madison, WV. Guys talk about how they had Black Lung benefits and then get a letter saying, “You won’t be receiving it anymore; state funds ran out, but you can reapply later.” It’s confusing. Most of them had all the tests and were told, ‘You have some Black Lung.’ But most are not receiving anything. Many are getting older, their health getting worse.
Black Lung is affecting younger miners. I think 20% have it. I can tell you one story of a guy that got Black Lung. I’m real good friends with his Dad, a retired coal miner. The dad said that the doctor told my son he had to quit working in the mines. Later his lungs completely quit, collapsed. He was in the hospital for about a month. He went back to work, had three episodes, and his doctor told him if he didn’t quit the mines, he wouldn’t be able to work in three years. He’s 39 years old.
When non-union mines came in here in the late 70s and 80s, mainly Massey, lowered the standards. Now the UMWA just signs a contract for whatever the companies want. Ninety percent of these mines don’t even have bathhouses now; guys drive home with filthy clothes with black faces. They give ½ hour pay to compensate. They don’t care about their employees.
Workers were putting up a fight, making a stand against the nonunion plants, and then a judge gave an injunction that they couldn’t picket any more. Just like how the attorney general threatened our teachers.
I worked with guys at a company that went bankrupt. These guys worked 1½ months and never got paid, but the company gave their foreman and white-collar people big bonuses right before filing for bankruptcy. Terrible.
Now I’ve heard hard numbers that to mine one ton of coal, if it took six people it would only take one at a mountain top removal job. And look at what they do with the mountain top removal. Go to coalrivermountainwatch.org for pictures.
Part 2 of this interview will be in another edition of the People’s Tribune.