United Mine Workers Leader Joseph Yablonski Is Murdered Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Joseph Yablonski, an activist with the United Mine Workers of America, ran against UMWA president W. A. Boyle in the 1969 union election but was defeated. Yablonski challenged the election results and shortly thereafter was murdered, along with his wife and daughter. The murders provoked outrage and a federal investigation, leading to Boyle’s imprisonment and to union reform.

Summary of Event

On the night of December 30, 1969, United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) reform activist Joseph Yablonski, along with his wife, Margaret, and their daughter, Charlotte, were shot to death in their beds in their Clarksville, Pennsylvania, home. Joseph Yablonski, who was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on March 3, 1910, was part of a coal-mining family and had been a miner since the age of fifteen. From 1934 onward, he had been active with UMWA, serving on its executive board between 1934 and 1942 and as president of the union’s Local 5 from 1955 to 1968. [kw]Yablonski Is Murdered, United Mine Workers Leader Joseph (Dec. 30, 1969) [kw]Murdered, United Mine Workers Leader Joseph Yablonski Is (Dec. 30, 1969) Yablonski, Joseph Boyle, W. A. United Mine Workers of America Rauh, Joseph L., Jr. Yablonski, Joseph Boyle, W. A. United Mine Workers of America Rauh, Joseph L., Jr. [g]United States;Dec. 30, 1969: United Mine Workers Leader Joseph Yablonski Is Murdered[01330] [c]Murder and suicide;Dec. 30, 1969: United Mine Workers Leader Joseph Yablonski Is Murdered[01330] [c]Labor;Dec. 30, 1969: United Mine Workers Leader Joseph Yablonski Is Murdered[01330] [c]Organized crime and racketeering;Dec. 30, 1969: United Mine Workers Leader Joseph Yablonski Is Murdered[01330] Pass, Albert Huddleston, Silous Sprague, Richard

Joseph Yablonski.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

As Yablonski rose in the ranks, he attracted the ire of UMWA president W. A. Boyle, who had forced him out of office in 1968 because Yablonski supported reform candidates for union office. Boyle, in contrast, led a corrupt and autocratic regime. In 1968, Yablonski sought to challenge Boyle for the UMWA presidency, but Boyle managed to defeat him through questionable electoral practices that included a lack of independent oversight of the election. Yablonski then attempted to challenge the results of the election, calling for an investigation by U.S. secretary of labor George P. Shultz. Shultz first chose to ignore the matter but intervened after the murders of Yablonski and his wife and daughter.

Boyle denied any involvement in the murders, either by himself or the union. He offered a reward for bringing the perpetrators to justice. However, the widespread publicity led to his arrest and conviction for having authorized the crime. As shocking as the premeditated murders had been in themselves (the perpetrators had previously broken into the Yablonski home to plan their crime), the crime also exposed serious problems of corruption and lack of democracy within the UMWA.

Although corruption and authoritarian leadership had been present since the time of the renowned UMWA president John L. Lewis, the problems had become more pronounced and severe by the time Boyle, one of Lewis’s handpicked successors who attempted to assume Lewis’s mantle of power, took office. Additionally, when the UMWA began to shift its stance from labor militancy to business unionism and close cooperation with management during the 1960’s, the union became less and less responsive to the needs of rank-and-file workers. Even Lewis, by the end of his life, had begun to support the management view that greater productivity would lead to more jobs, and so he failed to address health and safety concerns.

The growth of rank-and-file opposition to the unquestioned authority of the UMWA’s leadership increased following Lewis’s death, and opposition was spurred by the growing awareness of black-lung disease (pneumoconiosis), a debilitating and potentially deadly condition resulting from too much exposure to coal dust. There also was increasing anger over Boyle’s reluctance to address the disease, which was first brought to public attention by activists such as Ralph Nader from outside the union. Opposition to Boyle further increased after he was exposed for mismanaging the miners’ pension funds. His ineptitude led to retired miners having to pay additional dues money, and he was subsequently accused of embezzlement. Finally, Boyle’s lack of public concern over a 1968 mine explosion that killed seventy-eight miners cost him further public support.

Yablonski was in many ways uniquely positioned to challenge Boyle for the national leadership of the union. As one of the few local presidents who had been elected by the membership, he enjoyed much popular support, especially among the growing movement for a democratic leadership. He also had the support of labor activists outside the union, including Nader and Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., a lawyer with Americans for Democratic Action. However, Yablonski, who also had worked closely with labor’s Non-Partisan League, was aware of the risks of opposing Boyle.

From the moment his campaign began, Yablonski found himself in physical danger and even suffered a blow to his neck on June 28, 1968, which nearly left him paralyzed. Additionally, he and his supporters struggled continuously against the Boyle machine, first to achieve his nomination and then to successfully campaign against Boyle. Yablonski and his supporters persisted, filing a lawsuit for the right to have the union distribute his campaign literature through the mail, following the provisions of the Landrum-Griffin Act Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959[Landrum Griffin Act of 1959] (1959). Rauh also appealed on repeated occasions, but in vain, for Labor Secretary Shultz to investigate Boyle’s campaign practices. Boyle won the election, largely through bribery, voter intimidation, and other illegal means, funding his campaign with union dues. Yablonski, Rauh, and Yablonski’s two sons, Kenneth and Joseph, who were lawyers, attempted to challenge the legality of the election.

As the Department of Labor stalled and the suits wound their way through the courts, Silous Huddleston, a minor official with the UMWA, confessed in court that he had been seeking conspirators to murder Yablonski. The organizer of the murder plot was UMWA official Albert Pass. Huddleston testified that Boyle had plotted the murder even before the election, shortly after Yablonski announced his intentions to run against him. He added that the murder was delayed, however, to prevent accusations that Boyle arranged his opponent’s death to ensure his own win.

By December 30, the day of the murders, Pass had become inpatient with Huddleston, telling him to get the job done. That night, Huddleston, along with his hired hit men, cut local telephone wires, broke into the Yablonski home, and shot Yablonski and his wife and daughter, stealing money they found along the way. Kenneth Yablonski found the bodies of his mother, father, and sister three days later. The murders made headlines around the world. Huddleston, his henchmen, and the other known coconspirators were quickly caught and then brought to justice by noted prosecutor Richard Sprague, an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. Boyle also became the focus of public scrutiny and suspicion as the authority behind the murders.

Amid the adverse publicity, Boyle lost his presidency in 1972. A rank-and-file dissident group, Miners for Union Democracy, unseated him in the election, one of the first in the union’s history that had been run fairly, and replaced him with Yablonski supporter Arnold Miller. Boyle was arrested in 1973, following a coconspirator’s confession, and convicted of illegal use of pension funds and, in 1974, was convicted for his role in the Yablonski murders. Boyle died in prison in 1985.

Impact

The Yablonski murders took on a legendary status, becoming the subject of books and a film, Act of Vengeance (1986). More than a particularly shocking crime, the murders underscored what can happen when union leadership becomes too powerful and forgets about democratic principles, which are vital to the continued relevance of any union. In particular, the case revealed how high a price the revered union leader Lewis had exacted from the union’s rank and file to build a once-struggling organization and bring it to the position of power it achieved after World War II.

Although the publicity and investigation into the murders were harmful to the reputation of the UMWA and, by extension, the organized-labor movement, the publicity led to much needed reform and the revival of union democracy. Change began during Boyle’s administration, but it moved at a faster pace under the leadership of Miller (president from 1972 to 1979) and, later, Richard Trumka, who served as union president from 1982 to 1985 and became secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO. It is true that corruption led to the murders of the Yablonskis, but it is also the case that the murders served as the catalyst for significant and needed reform within the UMWA. Yablonski, Joseph Boyle, W. A. United Mine Workers of America Rauh, Joseph L., Jr.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fantasia, Rick, and Kim Voss. Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Places the Yablonski murders, and the corruption that led to them, in the context of the American labor movement’s increased move toward conservatism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Finley, Joseph E. The Corrupt Kingdom: The Rise and Fall of the United Mine Workers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972. Examines the history of the UMWA up to the time of the Yablonski murders, emphasizing the UMWA’s historic lack of democracy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Arthur H. Murder by Contract: The People v. “Tough Tony” Boyle. New York: Macmillan, 1975. An account of the Yablonski murders written for general readers. A good place to start for a historical introduction to the case.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McNamara, James. “Rebels, Reformers, and Racketeers: How Insurgents Transformed the Labor Movement.” WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society 8, no. 4 (June, 2005): 519-523. Places Yablonski’s story in the context of the history of dissent and protest within organized labor in the United States.

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