On January 5, 1969 one of the ugliest crimes in American Labor History was discovered when the bodies of Joseph (Jock) Yablonski, his wife Margaret and his daughter Charlotte were discovered shot to death in the beds of their Clarksville, Pennsylvania home. The bodies were discovered by Yablonski’s son Kenneth who went to investigate after being unable to reach the family for several days. They had apparently been killed after a break-in on New Year's Eve. It did not take much clever police work to determine who the murders were—and who paid them.
Yablonski, a United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) dissident rank-and-file leader had recently been defeated in an insurgent campaign for the union presidency against incumbent Tony Boyle. The December 9 election was riddled with improprieties and Yablonski had asked the Department of Labor to investigate the election for fraud and initiated five lawsuits against UMWA in federal court.
The Mine Workers had been in turmoil since the retirement of long time leader, the autocratic but successful John L. Lewis in 1961. After his first hand-picked successor died of a heart attack, Lewis turned to Boyle, a Montana born miner who had been a top aid to Lewis since the 1940’s and mirrored his former boss’s dictatorial style.
Local unions began pressing for greater autonomy and more support from the parent organization for grievances, which often languished unresolved for years. The difficulty in settling grievances had led local to take matters into their own hands and unauthorized wildcat strikes had become common. Boyle would send in tough enforcers to get the men back to work under contracts that were increasingly negotiated without any input at all from the rank-and-file. When all else failed, Boyle would seize control of recalcitrant Locals and replace officers. Sometimes he expelled members, which led to virtual black lists in the industry. When a rank-and-file movement sprang up to demand greater health care benefits for disabled miners with Black Lung Disease and the installation expensive dust control technology in the mines to prevent more illness, Boyle viewed it as a challenge to his authority.
Yablonski, born in Pittsburgh in 1910 was also the son of a miner who followed in his father’s footsteps. After the older man was killed in a mine explosion, he became active in the union. By 1934 he was a local officer. Rising steadily, Yablonski became President of District 5 encompassing the historic union cradle of Western Pennsylvania and was a member of the Executive Board. Despite their long association as top union officers, Boyle and Yablonski were at bitter odds by the mid 1960’s when Yablonski became the loudest, highest placed voice in support of the rank-and-file and a champion of reform in the Union. In 1965 Boyle had Yablonski ousted as District President. In May 1969 the Pennsylvanian announced his candidacy for UMWA President, the first real challenge to an incumbent president in decades.
The two men had an explosive meeting in June where Boyle tried to force Yablonski to withdraw. Shortly after Boyle let associate know that he wanted Yablonski killed. What Tony Boyle wanted, he usually got. In September Boyle paid another union officer, Albert Pass $200,000 in funds embezzled from the Union to find hit men and finance the murder.
Pass eventually found and hired a trio of amateurs to do the job. Paul Gilly was an unemployed house painter and the son-in-law of a minor Local official. The other two, Aubran Martin and Claude Vealey were rootless drifters. After Boyle determined that he had the machinery in place to be victorious in the election no matter what the actual vote might be it was decided to wait until afterwards to go ahead with the execution. Boyle hoped that a killing after the election would make it less like to look like he was involved.
The bumbling trio tried and failed at least three times to make the hit before breaking into the Yablonski home. They left behind finger prints and other physical evidence and were arrested for the crime within days. It did not take authorities much longer to tie the killings to Boyle although he was not originally indicted. Pass and his wife, however, we arrested and charged with conspiracy. All went on trial. Gilly and Vealey were sentenced to death. Martin saved himself by turning state’s evidence.
The Pennsylvania coal fields erupted with a spontaneous one day wildcat strike. The family quickly moved to call for investigations by the Department of Justice and a further inquiry into the election by the Labor Department.
While investigation under the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA) continued, dissident miners, with the support of Yablonski’s sons Kenneth and Joseph Jr., better known as Chip, met with labor lawyer Joseph Rauh to discuss forming a formal opposition caucus. In April Miners for Democracy (MFD) was formed by members of the West Virginia Black Lung Association and Yablonski’s supporters concentrated in Pennsylvania. The new caucus found recruits in all UMWA districts. Pressure was growing on Boyle and his old guard loyalists.
In 1971 the Department of Labor finally filed its suit to overturn the results of the 1969 election. On May Day—both International Labor Day and Law Day in America—Judge William Bryant threw out the results of the 1969 UMWA elections. New elections, this time monitored by the Department, were scheduled for December of 1972. MFD nominated Arnold Miller, a well known Black Lung activist as its candidate to face Boyle. Miller coasted to a big victory by a margin of 70,373 to 56,334. His election was announced on December 22, two days short of the third anniversary of the Yablonski murders.
In April, 1973, after two of the shooters implicated Boyle personally, the former union strongman was indicted for the murders. Convicted at a trial a year later, Boyle was convicted of all three murders and sentenced to three life terms, to be served consecutively. He died in prison in 1985 defiant and unrepentant to the end.
Chip Yablonski, a lawyer, was appointed UMWA General Council by Arnold. In 1975 he resigned to form a labor law practice in Washington where he gained fame representing the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) as well as union dissidents in the United Auto Workers and other unions.
MFD inspired similar rank-and-file movements in several other major unions including the Teamsters and United Steelworkers. Rauh, a co-founder with Eleanor Roosevelt of the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the leading liberal organization of the Post-war Era, and a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement, continued his work in support of these efforts.
The Yablonski killings and the struggle for union democracy were part of the classic 1975 documentary film Harlan County, USA. The events were also recounted in the 1986 HBO film Act of Vengeance starring Charles Bronson as Yablonski and Wilford Brimley as Boyle.
On a personal note the story of the Yablonski killings and the struggle for union democracy in the UMWA were among the first major labor stories I covered—from a distance in Chicago—for the Industrial Worker and later in the Chicago SEED’s widely unread Labor Pains column which I wrote under the name Wobbly Murf.