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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 225

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This is the grave of Jock Yablonski.

Joseph “Jock” Yablonski was born in 1910 in Pittsburgh. His parents had moved to the U.S. from Poland not long before. Not uncommonly at all for a poor child of immigrants in southwest Pennsylvania, Yablonski began working in the mines as a kid. But he also became active in the United Mine Workers of America, the union of miners struggling to make itself a factor in the coal industry during these hard, anti-union years. For most of Yablonski’s union career, there isn’t very much interesting to say. He was a John L. Lewis man, as one had to be for a union career. He wasn’t any kind of rebel or challenger to union authority. He was elected to his first union office in 1934. He became a member of the international executive board in 1940 and then in 1958 was elected president of UMWA District 5.

John L. Lewis was a man of great strengths and great weaknesses. One of the worst weaknesses was his dictatorial power and complete intolerance for any challenges to his leadership. That was never an issue with Yablonski. But Lewis’ successors combined the same intolerance with incompetence and corruption. When Tony Boyle became UMWA president in 1963, the union reached a nadir in terms of leadership. Boyle was more concerned with being friends with coal executives and exercising dictatorial power than representing the workers. This made Yablonski highly uncomfortable and soon they became enemies. One of Boyle’s “reforms” had been to make the district presidents appointed rather than elected. He was able to do this because retired miners had full voting rights and these guys were deeply committed to leadership and had little interest or even knowledge of the problems of the union. One good rule of thumb in unionism, I think, is that no matter how skilled and experienced retirees are, they shouldn’t be much involved in union affairs after they are no longer working. Anyway, Boyle removed Yablonski from his position in 1965.

By 1969, there was very real rank and file dissension against Boyle’s leadership, especially his indifference to workplace safety. After the Farmington Mine disaster, which killed 78 miners, Boyle notoriously said, “As long as we mine coal, there is always this inherent danger. This happens to be one of the better companies, as far as cooperation with our union and safety is concerned.” Workers were disgusted. They began organizing into Black Lung Associations to fight for their own safety, directly defying Boyle. This successful internal rebellion led to Nixon begrudgingly signing the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act late in 1969. These rebellions miners also looked for a new president. They needed someone to run against Boyle. While Yablonski was not exactly a union rebel, he was experienced and hated Boyle. So he became the insurgent candidate in a union without a history of insurgency. There were also rumors that the aging Lewis was going to endorse Yablonski, but he died that summer before he could do so. Who knows.

Boyle had a two-pronged response. First, rig the election. Second, murder Yablonski. The official election results favored Boyle by a 2-1 margin. But no one believed this. Everyone knew Boyle had rigged it. He had a base of support with the retirees, but was widely loathed among active miners. Yablonski called for an investigation into the fraud and initiated five lawsuits against Boyle and UMWA leadership in federal court. On December 31, 1969, Boyle instituted the second part of his plan. Using union funds, he hired three killers who murdered Yablonski, his wife, and their daughter while they were sleeping. Their bodies were not discovered for six days. Boyle eventually would die in prison for his actions, which also included fraud. Seven others would also serve prison time, including the killers and local UMWA executives who moved the hit money around. The UMWA would finally have a democratically elected president, but it was the incompetent Arnold Miller and the union rebellion movement would stagnate.

Jock Yablonski is buried in Washington Cemetery, Washington, Pennsylvania.

This is the first grave post based on a trip that was covered by LGM reader contributions. I am highly grateful for this and I assure you there will be more in the near future. If you are interested in seeing this series cover more labor figures from the internal union rebellions of the 1970s, you can help cover the necessary expenses here. I know that a potential post on I.W. Abel stirs your soul. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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