'Didn't take guff': Former coal miners union leader Joe Burke dies

A well-known Cape Breton coal miner and union leader who began working in the mines at the age of 16 and was an advocate for safe mining practices has died.

'He stood his ground and I think that's why he was successful,' says former colleague Bob Burchell

Joe Burke was the president of District 26 of the United Mine Workers of America from 1986 to 1994. (Submitted by Allison Burke)

A well-known Cape Breton coal miner and union leader who began working in the mines at the age of 16 and was an advocate for safe mining practices has died.

Walter (Joe) Burke, 80, served as president of District 26 of the United Mine Workers of America from 1986 to 1994.

Burke had black lung, also known as coal worker's pneumoconiosis, a disease caused by inhaling dust deeply into your lungs. The disease damages the lungs and in rare cases can cause death.

It was this condition that caused his death, said his obituary.

Fought for workers' compensation changes

Burke was a champion for those who suffered from sickness or disability as a result of working underground and fought for compensation for longtime workers with lung problems.

In the 1980s, the province added something known as "automatic assumption" to the workers' compensation framework. Automatic assumption applies to miners with 20 or more years of experience who suffer from loss of lung function.

"In such circumstances, the coal miner's loss of lung function is automatically assumed to be a work-related injury and the appropriate benefits are payable," says a document on the Workers' Compensation Board of Nova Scotia's website.

Before Burke became district president of the union, he had a stint as the international safety officer for the United Mine Workers of America at mines in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

For a few years, he juggled that position with his other job as a municipal councillor for the former Town of New Waterford, N.S.

'He certainly knew how to handle management'

Bob Burchell also worked for the United Mine Workers of America and often travelled with Burke.

"He was a staunch labour leader and was well respected by those he represented," said Burchell.

"He didn't take guff from the company. He stood his ground and I think that's why he was successful. He certainly knew how to handle mine management when times were tough."

Burke loved to sing and was once a member of the internationally known coal miners chorus, Men of the Deeps.

A funeral mass will be held on Friday morning at the Parish of St. Leonard in New Waterford.