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Open Access Dissertation

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First Advisor

Elizabeth Faue


My dissertation focuses on coal mining and occupational health and safety in the United States from 1968 to 1985. In the late 1960s, coal miners faced the constant risk of injury, occupational disease, and death. The dangerous conditions in the coal industry resulted in a massive explosion at the Farmington mine in West Virginia in 1968, which killed 78 miners. The Farmington disaster spurred miners to campaign for the reform of state and federal coal mine health and safety laws in the United States. They rejected the national leadership of their union, the United Mine Workers (UMW), which they perceived as corrupt and inattentive to their concerns. Instead, they engaged in activism at the local level, with the support of their families, activists, liberal politicians, and progressive physicians. They sought improved preventative legislation and compensation for the victims of pneumoconiosis, or `black lung,' a debilitating, work-related respiratory disease.

My study emphasizes the importance of community in the miners' campaign for the political reform of coal mine health and safety laws. I argue that sustained community activism enabled miners to achieve legislative change, including improved protective laws and compensation programs, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Coal miners and their communities played a significant role in the passage of a black lung compensation law in West Virginia in March 1969 and in the passage of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. They continued to engage in grassroots protest when they realized that the agencies responsible for upholding the new federal legislation, the U.S. Bureau of Mines and the Social Security Administration (SSA), were not fulfilling their responsibilities. The Bureau of Mines failed to enforce the health and safety measures in the Federal Mine Act, while the SSA denied federal black lung benefits to tens of thousands of miners. The campaign of sustained activism by miners and their supporters led to the passage of the Black Lung Benefits Act in 1972. Furthermore, it enabled a reform organization called Miners for Democracy to win democratic control of the United Mine Workers in 1972. In the early 1970s, coal miners demonstrated that they were not passive actors, but rather determined, conscious protestors. Ultimately, however, an inefficient and industry-orientated federal bureaucracy undermined the activists' achievements and led to a decline in coal mine health and safety.