Black Lung Rising

Several months ago, in a telephone conversation with Phil Smith, Communications Director of the UMW (United Mine Workers), I asked why so few coal miners belonged to his union.  Given that union mines had better working conditions, wages and benefits, and given the fabled history of the coal miners, the fact that less than one-fourth of the country’s miners belong to the UMW makes no sense.  There are 86,800 coal miners in the country, and fewer than 20,000 belong to the union.

Smith’s answer was stunning.  “They’re afraid,” he said.  Afraid?  These men who tunnel two miles into a rock and then set up shop inside a claustrophobic space the size of a large closet—these men who risk life and limb on a daily basis doing things most people would consider so wildly hazardous as to be insane—are “afraid”?

Smith said the mine owners have become so powerful and well coordinated, they practically dictate the industry’s terms of employment .  They do this through fear and intimidation.  Miners who attempt to organize their fellow workers, or who express a casual interest in joining the UMW, are routinely fired and black-balled.  In a tightly-knit industry like mining, when you get your name put on a list of “union activists,” you risk never working again.

And in those cases where miners, through courage and perseverance, actually succeed in getting the union voted in, the owners of the mine resort to the practice of “selling” the mine to another company (transfer its ownership on paper), in which case the so-called “new owners” refuse to recognize the arrangement, leaving the workers high and dry.  Not only do the miners not have a union, they’ve exposed themselves as “trouble-makers.”

Black lung disease is the common name for coal worker’s pneumoconiosis.  Caused by the prolonged inhalation of coal dust, pneumoconiosis can lead to other serious related ailments, including chronic bronchitis, emphysema, fibrosis and tuberculosis.  The disease cannot be cured or reversed, and death by black lung is horrible and excruciating.  As the lung tissue continues to harden, the sufferer experiences shortness of breath and pain.  Dying of black lung is death by gradual suffocation.

NIOSH (the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health), which functions more or less as OSHA’s “research arm,” reported that, in 2005-2006, approximately 9-percent of workers with a minimum of 25 years of service tested positive for black lung.  This represented a startling 5-percent increase in incidence rates from the late 1990s.

As dangerous an undertaking as coal mining is, there’s no comparison between the risks of cave-ins or flooding or explosions, and the risks of contracting this deadly disease.  In the last decade alone, 10,000 miners have died from black lung, compared with fewer than 400 from mine accidents.

What was most alarming about NIOSH’s findings was the number of younger miners—those in their thirties and forties—found to be suffering from black lung.  That these younger miners didn’t begin their careers until after passage of the landmark 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act (which established strict coal-dust standards)—the law designed to prevent black lung—shows that something is very wrong.

There are several theories for the rise of black lung:  Miners are being forced to work longer hours, thus exposing themselves to more dust at a given stretch; more efficient machinery is being used, creating finer and greater volumes of dust; and with the demand for coal and the price of energy rising dramatically, mines thought to have been “panned out” are being reopened.  These mines have smaller seams of coal which require cutting through more rock to get to, which, in turn, creates more deadly dust (respirable crystalline silica).

But one statistic that cannot be denied is the correlation between the increase in black lung and the decrease in union membership, and that correlation, while disappointing, should come as no surprise.  No one—not the government, not the media, not the company—knows or cares more about the welfare of a coal miner than a miners’ collective.  And those collectives are being phased out.

A miner in a union mine who voices a concern over too much overtime or excessive dust gets heard; a miner grousing about a safety issue in a non-union mine risks being told to shut up or, worse, being fired and black-balled.  Simple as that.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at