Home / General / This Day in Labor History: January 5, 1970

This Day in Labor History: January 5, 1970


I had planned this post for months so it’s total coincidence that it is going up the morning after this series won the Cliopatria.

On January 5, 1970, the body of United Mine Workers of American reformer Jock Yablonski was discovered, six days after his death. Yablonski was murdered on the orders of UMWA president Tony Boyle. One of the worst things a labor union president has ever done in this country, the aftermath of Yablonski’s murder both opened the UMWA for necessary reform and helped give unions a reputation for corruption and violence that still unjustly taints it today.

The UMWA is one of the oldest and traditionally most militant unions in American history. Founded to fight against the horrible conditions Appalachian coal miners faced in 1890, it grew to be the first great industrial union in American history. It fostered some of the most legendary organizers and union leaders in American history. John Mitchell. Mother Jones. John L. Lewis. Philip Murray. Under Lewis, industrial unionism came to the forefront of American democracy. Lewis created and led the CIO in its early years. Murray, who left the UMWA and became president of the United Steelworkers of America, was the second chairman of the CIO.

But the UMWA also contributed its fair share to the top-down leadership structure that would eventually come to hurt American unions. Lewis ruled his union with an iron fist. He was the UMWA for all intents and purposes. That charismatic leadership had its advantages. Lewis could turn thousands of people out when he needed to get something done and the average mineworker, poorly uneducated and deeply impoverished, had a powerful leader who could improve their lives. But the potential for corruption was endemic in this structure. So was the placing of all power in the leadership structure and not with the rank and file.

John L. Lewis

Lewis finally stepped down as head of the UMWA in 1960. His replacement, Thomas Kennedy, was an old-timer and a weak leader. Kennedy soon became sick and was replaced by Tony Boyle in 1962. A favorite of Lewis, Boyle had relied his mentor to rise through the ranks but was never popular with workers. By the 1960s, the UMWA membership had seen their lives improve significantly. Coal mining was still a brutal occupation, but it was not 1910 and the coal companies couldn’t rule over Appalachia as a fiefdom. These were workers with demands of their leadership as well as of the companies. Yet Boyle did not seem to care much about his workers. Grievances could take years to be settled. Many accused him of being in bed with the companies. Boyle handpicked all UMWA officials and tolerated no dissent.

In 1969, a grassroots UMWA member rose to challenge Boyle. Jock Yablonski. Yablonski was a longtime union official. He headed one of the UMWA districts, which was an appointed position, but Boyle canned him in 1965. Yablonski was spurred to run against Boyle in 1968, when the UMWA president showed little interest when 78 miners died in a Farmington, West Virginia mine explosion. In front of grieving families, Boyle stated, “I share the grief. But as long as we mine coal, there is always the inherent danger of explosions.” He then did little to attack the mine owners for these deaths. Supposedly John L. Lewis was going to endorse Yablonski, but he died in the summer of 1969. Who knows how true this is. In the 69 election, Boyle defeated Yablonski by a 2-1 margin, but no one believed the final results. Yablonski called for a federal investigation for voter fraud and initiated five lawsuits against the UMWA leaderhsip in federal court.

Jock Yablonski

On the night of December 31, 1969, three men and murdered Yablonski, his wife, and his daughter while they slept in their family home in Pennsylvania. Boyle ordered the killings on December 23, after he and Yablonski got into a screaming match at UMWA headquarters. The UMWA Executive Council embezzled $20,000 from union funds for the job, finding the son-in-law of a minor union official and a couple of drifters to do the job.

The aftermath was a disaster for Boyle and the UMWA. A federal investigation took place, under the auspices of the Secretary of Labor (and future Secretary of State) George Shultz. Boyle soon found himself behind bars for a variety of charges. He was first convicted of embezzling union funds to make illegal campaign contributions in the 1968 elections. While in prison for that, he was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder, receiving three consecutive life sentences as punishment. He died in prison in 1985. Seven other people were convicted of some role in the murders, including the three hit men, as well as UMWA local leaders who arranged for the money laundering.

More importantly, everyday workers were shocked and outraged about their horrible union leadership. A grassroots group arose, Miners for Democracy, in 1970. This group has its roots in the workplace justice black lung movement that Boyle had basically ignored during his leadership, and also included Yablonski’s core supporters, including his sons. Miners for Democracy demanded real accountability to the rank and file. In 1971, the federal government threw out the 1969 election. Miners for Democracy ran a reform slate led by Arnold Miller, a former miner and leader of the black lung movement. Miller defeated Boyle in 1972.

Tony Boyle escorted from the courtroom

This is the first time this series has dealt with a negative action of unions. But in the end, this story is not primarily about union corruption, though it should serve as a warning of such. Rather, it shows how rank and file union members can stand up to bad leadership in their own union. Moreover, it demonstrates the constant need for vigilance against the domination of an international or the AFL-CIO by a single individual. This has remained a problem for unions from the time of Samuel Gompers. John Sweeney was elected on a reform ticket and served as AFL-CIO for nearly 20 years. Richard Trumka, a former UMWA president himself (though he was in college when this all went down), is the current AFL-CIO head and we can only hope he has the good sense to step down after a decade or so, passing the mantle on to a new generation of leadership. Current UMWA head Cecil Roberts has stated that “It opened the union to new voices, new leaders. I’m a product of that; so was Rich Trumka.” I just hope Roberts and Trumka recognize that new voices and new leaders need to be a constant process, not a once in a generation revolution. Roberts has already headed the UMWA for 16 years, the same length of time that Trumka has been in the upper echelons of AFL-CIO leadership.

This series has also covered the Everett Massacre of 1916 and the implementation of NAFTA in 1994.

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  • Alex

    Sweeney as a “reformer” is funny. 20 years, not so much.

  • c u n d gulag

    I was almost 12 when Yablonski and his family were murdered.

    This was back in the day when bloody multiple murders shocked people’s consciences much more than today. So I distinctly remember this.

    This was also in the winter right after the Manson Families Tate-Labianca murders, and we on the East Coast wondered if we had a branch of Manson followers, or copycats, here too. People were following this very, very closely.

    And as a consequence, I think the fact that more people paid close attention to this than might normally have if it happened at another time, may have helped in giving Union corruption an even worse name.

    Union corruption, greed, and murder, were, of course, something Republicans were more than happy to have people believe. And though Nixon signed the OSHA Act later in 1970, the die was cast, and we all know how Reagan felt about unions, and what he was prepared to do to them.

    And in part, I think these murders strongly helped the cause of the anti-union forces.

    Congrats again, Erik, on your Cliopatria!

  • Vance Maverick

    this story … shows how rank and file union members can stand up to bad leadership in their own union

    By waiting until it does something horrible, which the government investigates, destroying its credibility? I mean, good that there was someone to pick up the pieces, but this story doesn’t seem to provide a replicable template.

    • The candidacy of Yablonski himself and the black lung movement both predated the murder and were the roots of growing demands for democracy within the UMWA.

      • And, look, power structures are vulnerable to all sorts of problems and those with power have all sorts of means to protect themselves.

        The horrible event happened as part of the power structures resistance to change. Of course, it’s much better to be working in a situation where such political violence is off the table entirely (though it’s interesting how violence shifts around, cf modern police management of protest; still, better than murder!). The “template” is push substantially for reform both internally and with appropriate coordination with other power structures (e.g., the government) and push back harder when the other side goes deeply evil.

        Better if they never go so evil, but there you go.

        Great post, Eric. I didn’t know this story at all.

        And, of course, a question! Do you know of any systematic, data driven analysis of violence in and against labor since, say, 1900 (or earlier)?

      • Vance Maverick

        Got it, thanks.

        And to join in the chorus, thanks for the series too.

  • Hogan

    To this day I think the Mine Workers and the Teamsters are the only unions where the international president is elected directly by the members.

    • Anonymous

      No, UE also has direct elections.

  • KadeKo

    Nothing to add, just this lefty’s thumbs up for intellectually honest discussion of labor’s history, warts and all. (Disclaimer: Too young to know directly, but I think both my grandpas were Teamsters.)

  • Western Dave

    “and helped give unions a reputation for corruption and violence that still unjustly taints it today.”

    Unless you live in Philadelphia. Don’t mess with Johnny Doc. (Although even he too is weakening. To think that there was a negative reaction when union members stormed school buses to tell kindergartners that they better watch out if their parents didn’t change their minds about who got the school’s building contract.

    • Hogan

      The constitution of Johnny Doc’s local requires members to tithe to the local’s political action fund, above and beyond their union dues. Must be nice.

  • creature

    I remember the Teamsters local in Cleveland back in the 70’s. They were all linked into the Mob there- Dorfman, Presser, all hooked up with those crooks, Nardi and the other Murray Hill gangsters. I got into a confrontation with a Teamster business agent- he was loud-talking me about our (URW) membership decline; I told him at least we didn’t fuck our members out of their pension money. Luckily, there were cooler (and less intoxicated) heads present, so nobody got shot. I remember the Yablonski murder well, sad day for organized labor.

  • wengler

    I remember the murders from the documentary ‘Harlan County USA’. There’s something about energy extraction that brings in the worst of the worst whether it’s coal or oil.

    There will be blood is the operative phrase.

  • Meany combined class collaboration at home with chauvinism and support for US imperialism abroad. The AFL-CIO’s foreign affairs department collaborated with the CIA and the State Department to set up anti-socialist, pro-American unions around the world and prop up pro-US dictatorships in Latin America, Asia and elsewhere. Meany was a virulent supporter of the Vietnam War.

    The second-in-command at the founding of the AFL-CIO was Walter Reuther, president of the CIO-affiliated United Auto Workers. He personified CIO leaders who had long since abandoned their earlier militancy and leftism, accommodated themselves to the Democratic Party, and rejected any struggle for industrial democracy or significant reform of the capitalist system.
    Reuther spearheaded the purge of socialists and left-wing militants in the CIO that preceded and was the precondition for unification with the AFL. The purpose of the witch hunt was both to suppress opposition to capitalism in the labor movement and to support the expansionist agenda of US imperialism internationally.

  • As with all of your posts in this series, you had me googling names and events because you piqued my interest, so I think your award is well-deserved. In the course of googling, I found a 1986 made for TV movie calledAct of Vengence about the murders with Charles Bronson as Jock Yablonski and Keanu Reeves(!) as Buddy Martin, one of the assassins, from a book with the same name.

  • And Google books has a preview of a chapter which details Richard Sprague’s prosecution of the killings.

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  • Ben

    This is an untimely post regarding unionization in the coal industry, but here goes anyhow.

    The Devil is Here in These Hills is a new (Jan. 2015) history of unionization in West Virginia … by Prof. James Green, University of Massachusetts. This is a most readable account of one of the ugliest chapters in American history. I commend it to anyone interested in the topic.

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