The August 9 federal court decision rejecting the coal industry's challenge to new regulations on black lung disease is an important victory for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), the National Black Lung Association, and the entire labor movement. My campaign supports every measure that defends black lung benefits and strengthens the health and safety of coal miners.
The decisive factor in defending these benefits, including the latest court ruling, has been the unflinching struggle that miners and their union have waged for decades--a struggle that sets an example for all working people in the fight for lifetime health insurance.
After four years of foot-dragging by the Clinton administration, the new Department of Labor regulations were signed into law January 19, the last day of William Clinton's presidency. The new rules represented a "modest"--to use the words of UMWA president Cecil Roberts--step forward for miners afflicted with this terrible respiratory lung disease caused by breathing coal dust.
Before the ink was dry on the new regulations, however, U.S. district judge Emmet Sullivan slapped an injunction in response to a lawsuit filed by the National Mining Association (NMA) that called for overturning the rules. Their legal challenge was backed by the newly installed Bush administration. While campaigning for president in West Virginia, George Bush and Albert Gore told miners they would protect black lung benefits. It didn't take the new president long to renege on his promise.
The immediate effect of the injunction was to deny new claims for black lung benefits. More than 400 miners or widows file claims every month. Under the new rules, the UMWA estimates, the approval rate of black lung claims will increase from 7 percent to 12 percent--still a far cry from the early 1970s, when the majority of miners with black lung received compensation. It took a giant strike in 1969 by 40,000 coal miners in West Virginia to get black lung compensation in the first place.
The goal of the coal bosses remains to eliminate black lung compensation altogether. As one of the NMA's attorneys, Mark Solomons, put it, "black lung is largely a thing of the past. There is no need for the black lung program."
The NMA argues that the new rules are "unnecessary" and "costly," that they ignore "science" and "place miners' jobs in jeopardy." According to industry figures, the costs to the coal bosses would amount to 6 cents per ton of coal. In the past six months the price of coal has doubled to more than $40 a ton.
The NMA was joined in the latest effort to overturn black lung compensation by the American Iron & Steel Institute, several commercial insurance companies, and Ohio Valley Coal. The latter company, owned by Robert Murray, is notoriously antiunion and the UMWA is currently locked in battle at two of Murray's mines in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The NMA said it would appeal the ruling. In typically cynical fashion, Solomons said in response to a question about whether the boss association would appeal: "You could bet your pension on it."
The court cut down the NMA's challenge to the definition of pneumoconiosis (black lung disease), in particular the NMA's opposition to including the part that says "any chronic restrictive or obstructive pulmonary disease arising out of coal mine employment." Sullivan found their claim that the Department of Labor lacked scientific expertise to define the black lung disease "completely without merit."
The court rejected the NMA's arguments for not limiting the amount of medical "evidence" the coal bosses can submit in opposing claims. In the past the coal companies have swamped miners with scores of medical reports, as well as subjecting miners to countless depositions. The new rules should help end this humiliating and dehumanizing experience. Each side is allowed to submit two medical reports. The ruling now limits the "purchasing" of medical evidence by the coal bosses and improves the position of the miners a few degrees.
It is a bald-faced lie to say that "black lung is a thing of the past." Ask any miner--isn't black lung one of the main causes of death in coal mining families? According to the UMWA, more than 1,000 miners die each year from breathing coal dust. At a hearing sponsored by the Mine Safety and Health Administration in Morgantown, West Virginia, a union miner from Consol's Blacksville mine testified that in the past years, 26 miners there had been diagnosed with black lung.
Meanwhile, the coal bosses use cheating and fraud to falsify coal dust sampling. Since 1991, more than 160 coal companies or individuals have been criminally prosecuted for fraudulent coal-dust sampling.
The offensive by the coal bosses against miners is part of a broader drive by the entire employer class to go after workers and farmers, both in the United States and worldwide. Garment workers, meat packers, auto workers, truck drivers, and many others have direct experience with the bosses' moves to speed up production, extend working hours, slash wages and benefits, and drive down working conditions. This is not a case of capitalism malfunctioning. It's how capitalism works. It's how capitalists seek to maintain their profit rates--out of our labor power and the value that we produce as a class.
The employers' war against working people at home is extended abroad. Today we see this in the support by the U.S. rulers--Democrats and Republicans--to the accelerated war drive by the Israeli regime against the Palestinian people's fight for a homeland. Part of forging working-class solidarity is reaching out to fellow working people who are in struggle around the world. We share common interests and a common enemy--the handful of billionaire families who rule the United States.
During the recent petitioning effort to get the Socialist Workers campaign on the ballot, my supporters found strong interest and support for running a socialist coal miner for mayor. We found in this response a hunger for political ideas, a desire for class solidarity, and a widening experience of resistance among both miners and other working people.
More workers are looking to find ways to link up, to read, to discuss socialist politics as we fight to strengthen our unions.
As part of fighting for a working-class alternative, my campaign calls on the entire labor movement to defend and extend black lung benefits. The outrage that black lung is still the main killer of coal miners is simply one glaring example of an economic system that puts profit-making above the health and safety of working people. This is why the Socialist Workers campaign points to the need to fight for revolutionary change, for the need to fight for a government of workers and farmers.
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