Epic Lyndon Johnson at the Height of His Great Society: He Congratulates Union Titan John L. Lewis on the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act

In crediting Lewis, long-time head of the United Mine Workers, with making it possible, LBJ boldly associates himself with labor’s cause.

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“A grateful President salutes you.”

John L. Lewis was President of the United Mine Workers union from 1920-1960. Coal miners for 40 years hailed him as the man whose efforts brought higher wages, pensions and medical benefits. He was named by FDR a member of the Labor Advisory Board and the National...

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Epic Lyndon Johnson at the Height of His Great Society: He Congratulates Union Titan John L. Lewis on the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act

In crediting Lewis, long-time head of the United Mine Workers, with making it possible, LBJ boldly associates himself with labor’s cause.

“A grateful President salutes you.”

John L. Lewis was President of the United Mine Workers union from 1920-1960. Coal miners for 40 years hailed him as the man whose efforts brought higher wages, pensions and medical benefits. He was named by FDR a member of the Labor Advisory Board and the National Labor Board of the NRA, and was also the driving force behind the founding of the CIO, a federation of unions that organized industrial workers. In 1952, Lewis commenced the long struggle for a Federal Mine Safety Act, one that would take 17 years to pass. On September 14, 1964, four years after his retirement from the UMWA, Lewis was awarded the President Medal of Freedom, with President Johnson saying at the award ceremony that Lewis was an “eloquent spokesman of labor [and] has given voice to the aspirations of the industrial workers of the country and led the cause of free trade unions within a healthy system of free enterprise.”

In 1968, Johnson sent to Congress the comprehensive and stringent Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which brought an entirely new degree of health and safety regulation to the mining industry. It was what the law miners had been hoping and waiting for decades. The Act required two annual inspections of every surface coal mine and four at every underground coal mine, and dramatically increased federal enforcement powers in the mines. It also provided for monetary penalties for violations, and established criminal penalties for knowing and willful violations. The safety standards for all coal mines were strengthened, and health standards were adopted. There were also specific procedures for the development of improved mandatory health and safety standards, and compensation was provided for miners who were disabled by the respiratory “black lung” disease.

Johnson felt that Lewis, who had spent his whole life fighting for unions and for these reforms, and had helped make them possible, should share in the credit for their forthcoming enactment. He wrote Lewis crediting him, but just as importantly, associating himself with the labor cause and expressing his own solidarity with labor in its struggle for health and safety. This was epic Lyndon Johnson at the height of his Great Society.

Typed letter signed, on White House letterhead, Washington, September 11, 1968, to Lewis. “I am today sending to the Congress a comprehensive new Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. I have always shared with you a concern for the physical well-being of the brave men who mine America’s coal – and now we are determined to take a giant step toward giving them the protection they deserve. The route toward this goal has been long and torturous. But millions of Americans know we wouldn’t have come this far if it hadn’t been for the dedication and compassion of John L Lewis. Now we are building on the foundation that you began. A grateful President salutes you.”

Lewis died in June 1969, while the measure was before Congress. The Coal Mine Health and Safety Act passed Congress and was signed by President Nixon on December 30, 1969. It was a triumph for both Johnson and Lewis.

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