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A Brief History of the UMWA

In the history of American labor, the United Mine Workers of America has occupied a position of unquestioned leadership. The UMWA led the struggle to establish collective bargaining in American industrial life in the twentieth century. Its principles and policies, its strength and unity, and its outstanding leaders have been an inspiration to generations of working families for over one hundred years. The richness of the UMWA's history is a testament to the firm determination imbedded in the hearts and minds of the coal miners of North America to build and maintain a strong, enduring union.

The UMWA was founded in Columbus, Ohio in 1890 by the merger of Knights of Labor Trade Assembly No. 135 and the National Progressive Union of Miners and Mine Laborers. The constitution adopted by the delegates to the first UMWA convention barred discrimination based on race, religion or national origin. The UMWA founding fathers clearly recognized the destructive power of discrimination at a time when racism and ethnic discrimination were accepted facts in some parts of American culture. The delegates also called for miners to obtain a fair share of the wealth they created "fully compatible with the dangers of our calling." The delegates pledged "to use all honorable means to maintain peace between ourselves and employers; adjusting all differences, as far as possible, by arbitration and conciliation, that strikes may become unnecessary."

Throughout its history, the UMWA has provided leadership to the American labor movement. Among the great UMWA leaders were John L. Lewis, Phil Murray, Bill Green, William B. Wilson, John Mitchell and Mother Jones.

UMWA history is full of legendary and often tragic names. The Molly Maguires; the Lattimer Massacre and the Ludlow Massacre; Matewan and the Battle of Blair Mountain; Paint Creek, Cabin Creek and Buffalo Creek; and Bloody Harlan are some of many legendary stories that have been handed down in the oral history of mining families.

Despite the threat of physical harm and economic ruin, miners have constantly struggled against great odds to achieve their goals: the eight-hour day in 1898, collective bargaining rights in 1933, health and retirement benefits in 1946, and health and safety protections in 1969.

The UMWA was an influential member of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and was the driving force behind the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Organizers from the UMWA fanned out across the country in the 1933 to organize all coal miners after passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act. The law granted workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers. After organizing the nations coal fields, the miners turned their attention to the mass production industries, such as steel and automobiles, and helped those workers organize. Through the CIO, nearly 4 new million workers were organized in less than two years.

The UMWA was an early pioneer of health and retirement benefits. In 1946, in a contract between the UMWA and the federal government, a multi-employer UMWA Welfare and Retirement Fund was created. The UMWA Fund would change permanently health care delivery in the coal fields of the nation. The UMWA Fund built eight hospitals in Appalachia, established numerous clinics and recruited young doctors to practice in rural coal field areas. A 1977 Presidential Commission found that the UMWA Fund had allowed miners to succeed "in obtaining for themselves a quality of health care comparable to that of many sectors of the industrial population."

The UMWA has also been a leader in the field of worker health and safety. Since its beginning, the UMWA has pushed for technical and statutory advances to protect "life, health and limb." Because of the dust created in coal mines, the UMWA was forced to become expert in occupational lung diseases such as silicosis and pneumoconiosis. In 1969, the UMWA convinced Congress to enact the landmark Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. That law changed a number of mining practices to protect miners' safety and provided compensation for miners suffering from black lung disease. Perhaps most important, it was the first time that Congress mandated the elimination of a man-made occupational disease. Despite reductions in coal mine dust concentrations, after 25 years this mandate still has not been fulfilled--coal miners still suffer from black lung.

Today, the UMWA continues its primary role of speaking out on behalf of American coal miners. But it also has taken on an active international role by working to end apartheid in South Africa and by helping workers in the former Soviet Union and developing nations form democratic labor unions.

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