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America Has Mistreated Its Coal Miners. Here’s Their Fight for Justice.

“You all have black lung, and you’re all gonna die!” Buff would yell at gatherings of miners.

A coalition of miners, physicians and activists known as the Black Lung Association began pressing for comprehensive reforms, including new programs for workers’ compensation. Miners carried signs at legislative hearings proclaiming “NO LAW, NO WORK.” Soon the movement reached into the mines themselves, with a 1969 strike of 200 workers in Raleigh County, in southern West Virginia.

“The news quickly spread, and within just a few days, more than 10,000 miners in neighboring counties had joined the protest,” Hamby writes. “It was a wildcat strike; the United Mine Workers leadership didn’t approve.” Some 40,000 more workers across West Virginia soon took part in what Hamby calls “the largest political strike in U.S. history.”

As a result of the “black lung uprising,” West Virginia passed its first workers’ compensation laws related to the disease; Kentucky and Ohio soon followed. In 1969, Congress passed a comprehensive reform that attacked black lung at its source by requiring companies to sharply reduce (and to continually monitor) coal dust. Richard Nixon quietly signed it into law; unlike Trump he didn’t invite coal miners to the signing ceremony, because he didn’t have one.

The reforms were supposed to eradicate black lung, consigning it to coal mining’s primitive past. But putting the laws into practice was another, slower and much less visible fight. By the dawn of the new century, black lung was on the rise again, while coal miners had collectively assimilated a red state view of the world. Describing this new reality takes up most of Hamby’s book.

At first, the new generation of black-lung sufferers saw their ailment as “the way of the world.” As one miner tells Hamby: “If you wanted to keep your job, you worked when and how the company told you and didn’t complain.” And another: “If you was lucky enough to get a job and you had a family to feed, you done what you had to do to feed your family, sacrifice your body.”

Hamby is not an elegant or emotional writer, but he does manage to capture the inner turmoil of his subjects as they get sick and realize the coal mining companies and their high-power attorneys are getting the best of them. Mostly, he accomplishes this with a blow-by-blow description of repeated doctor visits and proceedings before administrative law judges.

“We weren’t lawyers. Didn’t know anything about the law,” Mary Fox, the wife of the miner Gary Fox says, remembering the couple’s first, unaided attempts to get black lung payments. “We had never seen a courtroom before.” An advocate stepped in to help the Foxes: John Cline. After several frustrating years working at a rural medical clinic, and seeing lawyers get the best of West Virginia miners again and again, Cline had gone to law school himself, at the age of 53, just so that he could represent them.

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