West Virginia’s Senator Robert C. Byrd – who died last week at age 92 – fought relentlessly for fair labor standards throughout his career as senator, which spanned five decades, making Robert Byrd the longest serving Senator in Congressional history. The National Consumers League celebrates his lifelong accomplishments, including vastly improving the conditions under which coal miners’ work.
Byrd fought for health care reform and greater access to higher education. And Byrd championed labor and employment protections, especially for mine workers. As President Cecil E. Roberts of the United Mine Workers of America said upon learning the news of Byrd’s passing, “The United Mine Workers and all coal-mining families have lost their best friend in U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.”
To improve mine safety, Byrd secured funds to hire additional inspectors; he worked to develop newer and better safety equipment underground. In 1969, Byrd helped pass the Coal Miner Health and Safety Act and convinced President Nixon – who had threatened to veto the bill – not to do so. The passage of the Coal Miner bill helped to improve health and safety in the mining fields and likely saved thousands of lives. In fact, there was a ten-fold decrease in lives lost from the 40 years prior to passage of the bill to the 40 years after: recorded miners’ deaths totaled 32,000 before passage of the bill and 3,200 after. After passage of the act, Byrd continued to champion provisions to protect miners. He supported the 1977 improvements to the 1969 act and later fought to protect mining families by securing their access to health care. In 2006, he helped pass the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act, which ensures coal operators are planning, training for, and better able to respond to emergencies.
Byrd’s work on behalf of mining families is unparalleled, but Byrd will also be remembered for a number of other accomplishments. The West Virginia Senator co-sponsored the Employee Free Choice Act, to promote the ability of workers to form unions. Byrd dedicated substantial resources to improving access to education nationwide. His original concept for an honors scholarship in West Virginia soon became the model for the first and only federal based merit scholarship, the Robert C. Byrd Honor Scholarship Program. He brought money into the state for improved health facilities, medical schools, and medical care, expanding these benefits to other states across the U.S.
The Senate will not be the same without the unique presence of Robert Byrd of West Virginia. His legacy of landmark legislation -for miners, education, and health care – will be felt for decades to come. The National Consumers League mourns his passing but is grateful for all that he gave to American workers.