The United Mine Workers Union (UMWA)

The United Mine Workers Union (UMWA)

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The United Mine Workers Union (UMWA) was founded in Ohio in 1890. British immigrants played an important role in the early days of the organization. John Rae, he first president, was originally from Scotland and the first secretary, Robert Watchorn, came from Derbyshire in England.

Under the leadership of John Mitchell (1898-1907) the union grew rapidly and he organised successful strikes in the bituminous and anthracite coal fields in 1897 and 1902. William B. Wilson and Mary 'Mother' Jones were other important figures in the UMWA during this period. Mitchell was followed by T. L. Lewis (1908-1910), John P. White (1911-17) and Frank Hayes (1917-19).

In 1919 John L. Lewis became acting UMWA president when ill-health prevented Hayes from carrying out his duties. Lewis was elected president in 1920 and remained in the post for the next 40 years. With growing unemployment in the 1930s, membership of the UMWA fell from 500,000 to less than 100,000.

In the 1940s Lewis led a series of strikes that resulted in increased wages for miners. This resulted a growth in union members to 500,000. Congress responded to the success of unions such as the UMWA by passing the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) that placed new restrictions on trade unions.

When John L. Lewis retired in 1960 the union went through a difficult period. Thomas Kennedy, the next president (1960-63) was followed by Tony Boyle (1963-72) However, he was convicted of the murder of the union activist, Joseph Yablonski and his wife and daughter. Arnold Miller (1972-79) replaced Boyle and he was followed by Sam Church (1979-82), Richard Trumka (1982-1995). In 1964 the union had 450,000 members but by the 1990s this had fallen to 200,000.

No one can understand the true nature of trade unionism without understanding the industrial revolution and what it is accomplished. The history of mankind has been more virtually affected by changes in its machines and its methods of doing business than by any action or counsel of statesmen or philosophers. What we call the modern world, with its huge populations, its giant cities, its political democracy, its growing intensity of life, its contrasts of wealth and poverty - this great, whirling, restless civilization, with all its vexing problems, is the offspring merely of changed methods of producing wealth.

The condition of workmen in the textile and other factories was incredibly bad. The day's work was constantly lengthened, in some cases to fourteen, sixteen, and more hours, and while not difficult, the labor was confining and nerve-wearing. There was little provision for the safety of the workman, and terrible accidents were a matter of daily occurrence in the crowded mills and factories. Periods of feverish activity, during which men were worked beyond the limit of human endurance, were succeeded by still more harassing periods of depression, when thousands of men were thrown into the street.

The labor organization as it exists today is the product of a long evolution. The constitution of the trade union, its by-laws, its customs and traditions, its practices and policies have all been the result of a gradual working out of particular remedies for particular problems. The constitution of the trade union, moreover, has been evolved by and through the efforts of workingmen. The trade union is a government of workingmen, by workingmen, for workingmen, and the framers of its constitution have been workingmen.

After months of terrible hardships the strike was about won. The mines were not working. The spirit of the men was splendid. William B. Wilson had come home from the western part of the state. I was staying at his home. The family had gone to bed. We sat up late talking over matters when there came a knock at the door. A very cautious knock.

"Come in," said Mr. Wilson.

Three men entered. The looked at me uneasily and Mr. Wilson asked me to step in an adjoining room. They talked the strike over and called Wilson's attention to the fact that there were mortgages on his little home, held by the bank which was owned by the coal company, and they said, "We will take the mortgage off your home and give you $25,000 in cash if you will just leave and the strike die out."

I shall never forget his reply: "Gentlemen, if you come to visit my family the hospitality of the whole house is yours. But if you come to bribe me with dollars to betray my manhood and my brothers who trust me, I want you to leave this door and never come here again."

The strike lasted a few weeks longer. Meantime, Wilson, when strikers were evicted, cleaned out his barn and took care of the evicted miners until homes could be provided. One by one he killed his chickens and his hogs. Everything that he had he shared. He ate dry bread and drank chicory (instead of coffee). He knew every hardship that the rank and file of the organization knew. We do not have such leaders now."

Union men generally believe that there is no such thing as an open shop except on a small and insignificant scale. An operation either becomes all union or all non-union and is ... promulgated principally by antagonistic employers who do not hesitate to discharge a union man whenever they find him in their establishment.... It is generally acknowledged that the aggressive power of a union in periods of industrial activity and its defensive strength during periods of depression maintain a higher standard of living not only for themselves but for non-union men in the same line of work than would be obtained with out it. Reasoning from that standpoint, they insist that common honesty should teach the person who receives the benefits brought about by the union to pay his share to maintain it.

In spite of oppressors, in spite of false leaders the cause of the workers continues onward. Slowly his hours are shortened, slowly his standards of living rise to include some of the good and beautiful things in life. Slowly, those who create the wealth of the world are permitted to share it. The future is in labor's strong, rough hands.

Mine workers union endorses Biden energy policies in exchange for job training

WASHINGTON — The United Mine Workers of America leadership announced Monday they support President Joe Biden’s green energy policies in exchange for a robust transition strategy, a move the union hopes its membership will support as a way to transition toward new jobs.

Fearing further regulations from the Biden administration, the UMWA is pleading with Congress to invest in the industry by allocating funds to training and “good paying jobs” with benefits in renewable energy sectors for miners dislocated by the changes. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is joining the union for its announcement Monday morning.

“We’re trying to, first of all, insert ourselves to the extent that we can in this conversation because our people, a lot of coal miners in this country, their families have suffered already some traumatic losses,” UMWA President Cecil Roberts told NBC.

For many miners, it’s going to be a hard sell.

“It’s not fair to take somebody’s job away from them and push them into another career,” Ryan Cottrell, a miner and union member in Harrison County, West Virginia, said in a phone interview. “I love my job. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in this world. And I hope coal is continued to be mined for years after I’m gone.”

The United Mine Workers Union (UMWA) - History

In the history of American labor, the United Mine Workers of America has occupied a position of unquestioned leadership. The UMWA led the struggle to establish collective bargaining in American industrial life in the twentieth century. Its principles and policies, its strength and unity, and its outstanding leaders have been an inspiration to generations of working families for over one hundred years. The richness of the UMWA's history is a testament to the firm determination imbedded in the hearts and minds of the coal miners of North America to build and maintain a strong, enduring union.

The UMWA was founded in Columbus, Ohio in 1890 by the merger of Knights of Labor Trade Assembly No. 135 and the National Progressive Union of Miners and Mine Laborers. The constitution adopted by the delegates to the first UMWA convention barred discrimination based on race , religion or national origin. The UMWA founding fathers clearly recognized the destructive power of discrimination at a time when racism and ethnic discrimination were accepted facts in some parts of American culture. The delegates also called for miners to obtain a fair share of the wealth they created "fully compatible with the dangers of our calling.". The delegates pledged "to use all honorable means to maintain peace between ourselves and employers adjusting all differences, as far as possible, by arbitration and conciliation, that strikes may become unnecessary."

Throughout its history, the UMWA has provided leadership to the American labor movement. Among the great UMWA leaders were John L. Lewis , Phil Murray , Bill Green , William B. Wilson , John Mitchell and Mother Jones .

UMWA history is full of legendary and often tragic names. The Molly Maguires the Lattimer Massacre and the Ludlow Massacre Matewan and the Battle of Blair Mountain Paint Creek, Cabin Creek and Buffalo Creek and Bloody Harlan are some of many legendary stories that have been handed down in the oral history of mining families.

Despite the threat of physical harm and economic ruin, miners have constantly struggled against great odds to achieve their goals: the eight-hour day in 1898, collective bargaining rights in 1933, health and retirement benefits in 1946, and health and safety protections in 1969.

The UMWA was an influential member of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and was the driving force behind the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations ( CIO ). Organizers from the UMWA fanned out across the country in the 1933 to organize all coal miners after passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act. The law granted workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers. After organizing the nations coal fields, the miners turned their attention to the mass production industries, such as steel and automobiles, and helped those workers organize. Through the CIO, nearly 4 new million workers were organized in less than two years.

The UMWA was an early pioneer of health and retirement benefits. In 1946, in a contract between the UMWA and the federal government, a multi-employer UMWA Welfare and Retirement Fund was created. The UMWA Fund would change permanently health care delivery in the coal fields of the nation. The UMWA Fund built eight hospitals in Appalachia, established numerous clinics and recruited young doctors to practice in rural coal field areas. A 1977 Presidential Commission found that the UMWA Fund had allowed miners to succeed "in obtaining for themselves a quality of health care comparable to that of many sectors of the industrial population."

The UMWA has also been a leader in the field of worker health and safety. Since its beginning, the UMWA has pushed for technical and statutory advances to protect "life, health and limb." Because of the dust created in coal mines, the UMWA was forced to become expert in occupational lung diseases such as silicosis and pneumoconiosis. In 1969, the UMWA convinced Congress to enact the landmark Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. That law changed a number of mining practices to protect miners' safety and provided compensation for miners suffering from black lung disease. Perhaps most important, it was the first time that Congress mandated the elimination of a man-made occupational disease. Despite reductions in coal mine dust concentrations, after 25 years this mandate still has not been fulfilled--coal miners still suffer from black lung.

Today, the UMWA continues its primary role of speaking out on behalf of American coal miners. But it also has taken on an active international role by working to end apartheid in South Africa and by helping workers in the former Soviet Union and developing nations form democratic labor unions.

Fifty Years Ago, the Murder of Jock Yablonski Shocked the Labor Movement

On New Year’s Eve, 1969, Chip Yablonski called his father. Or at least, he tried to.

“The phone didn’t answer,” Yablonski recalled nearly a half-century later. “We thought [he] went out for the evening.”

Yablonski, at the time an attorney in Washington, D.C., didn’t think anything of it until a few days later, when his father, United Mine Workers (UMW) leader Joseph “Jock” Yablonski, didn’t show up for a swearing-in of elected officials in Washington, Pennsylvania, a small city about a half-hour south of Pittsburgh. Chip and his brother, Ken, had feared for their father’s safety since he announced the previous May that he would challenge W.A. “Tony” Boyle for the UMW presidency. He’d lost the election earlier that month but was challenging the results as fraudulent.

Ken, who lived in Washington, went to check on his father in his farmhouse in Clarksville, about 20 miles away in the heart of southwestern Pennsylvania’s coal country, where he found the results of a grisly execution.

Jock Yablonski was dead, as was his wife, Margaret, and their 25-year-old daughter, Charlotte. All had been murdered by gunshot. His dad’s Chevrolet and sister’s Ford Mustang had their tires slashed, and the phone lines to the house had been cut.

Even in the early stages of the investigation into the triple homicide, authorities believed that more than one person was involved. But investigators ultimately uncovered a conspiracy that stretched all the way to Boyle himself, and the ensuing criminal cases would lead to the UMW and to the labor movement overall changing how they operated.

“After Boyle was arrested, you have this moment when [the UMW] opens up, and it’s a critical moment,” says labor historian Erik Loomis. “In many ways, the modern leadership of the [UMW] comes out of that movement.”

Reform—if not revolution—flowered in the 1960s and that extended to the maturing labor movement. The first generation of organizers was retiring, including John L. Lewis, who had spent more than 40 years as president of the UMW, which he called the “shock troops of the American labor movement.”

Lewis was a transformational figure in the American labor movement, founding the Congress of Industrial Organizations (the CIO, which later merged with the AFL) and serving as its first president from his offices in Washington, D.C. Lewis encouraged the growth of unionization nationwide, but was also an autocrat, purging anyone that disagreed with him. In fact, that’s how Jock Yablonski rose to prominence within the union.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1910, Yablonski went to work in the coal mines of southwestern Pennsylvania at the age of 15. A mine explosion killed his father in 1933, and for years after, mine safety was a key issue to him. Yablonski caught Lewis’ eye and soon received the titan’s backing: first to run for executive board in 1941 and then the following year for president of the district encompassing his home region of Pennsylvania. (Incumbent district president Patrick Fagan had drawn Lewis’ ire for supporting Franklin Roosevelt’s bid for a third term Lewis favored Republican candidate Wendell Willkie.)

John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers, ruled the union with a strong arm. (Bettman / Contributor)

In 1960, Lewis retired and was succeeded as union president by Thomas Kennedy, but the real power behind the throne was Boyle, the vice president, who rose through the ranks in his native Montana before being brought to Washington by Lewis to be groomed as his true heir apparent. As Kennedy’s health failed, Boyle took over executive duties, and finally became president upon Kennedy’s death in 1963. Boyle shared Lewis’ dictatorial tendencies, but none of his acumen.

“Tony Boyle operated the United Mine Workers like John Lewis did, but he was not John Lewis, and did not achieve what he had,” says Chip Yablonski, now 78 years old and retired from his law practice. “It was a corrupt institution from top to bottom.”

Former United Mine Workers president, W.A. "Tony" Boyle enters the courthouse during his trial for masterminding the 1969 Yablonski murders. (Bettman / Contributor)

The by-laws of the union stated that retirees retained full voting benefits, and Boyle had maintained power with what the younger Yablonski calls “bogus locals,” full of retirees and not necessarily enough representation of active members. Boyle also seemed to find high-paying jobs within the union for family members.

When Boyle spent lavishly on the union’s 1964 convention in Miami—the first outside of coal country, he met with opposition among the UMW. “If you try to take this gavel from me,” Boyle was quoted by United Press International as saying, “I’ll still be holding it when I’m flying over your heads.” In Miami, a group of miners from District 19, which encompassed Kentucky and Tennessee, physically assaulted anti-Boyle speakers.

The union also owned the National Bank of Washington (D.C., not Pennsylvania), a unique arrangement that had helped the union expand and purchase their own mines in fatter times, but by the 1960s had become rife with fraud and poor management. For years, the union improved the bank’s finances at the expense of union members’ benefits, a scheme that wouldn’t be exposed until later in the decade.

On top of that, Boyle had become too cozy with the mine owners, as evidenced by his tepid reaction to the Farmington mine disaster in West Virginia. Early on the morning of November 20, 1968, a series of explosions rocked the region. Of the 95 men working the overnight “cat eye” shift, 78 were killed. The remains of 19 remained in the shaft, which would be sealed off 10 days later with no input from miners’ families Boyle called it “an unfortunate accident,” praised the company’s safety record and didn’t even meet with the miners’ widows.

Jock Yablonski, meanwhile, was an unlikely revolutionary. In his 50s, he was part of the inner circle running the union, but he saw the problems within the union’s operation and was outspoken about it. “He’s no radical,” Loomis says of Yablonski. “He’s an insider, but he recognized what was happening among the rank and file, and the union wasn’t really serving its members well.”

Boyle had Yablonski removed from his position as district president in 1965, ostensibly for insubordination. But Yablonski’s son Chip saw another reason.

“Boyle saw my dad as a threat,” recalls Chip. “[My dad] stewed for a few years and decided to challenge Boyle [in May 1969].”

“From the moment he announced his candidacy, we were afraid goons from District 19 would be activated,” says Chip.

And that’s exactly what happened. After the murders, the criminal warrant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania stated that Boyle went to Albert Pass, a Boyle loyalist and president of District 19, and said, “Yablonski ought to be killed or done away with.” Shortly thereafter, District 19 received $20,000 for a research fund from the union. Checks were cut to retirees, who cashed them and kicked them back to Pass, who then used the money as payment to order the murder of Yablonski.

At the same time, the union newspaper, the Mine Workers’ Journal, became a house organ for Boyle during the campaign, publishing anti-Yablonski propaganda. Boyle had an additional 100,000 ballots printed up to stuff the ballot box and on Thanksgiving, two weeks before the election, Pass told Boyle the vote totals from District 19. Of course, Boyle won the district decisively, and just as unsurprisingly, he won the election.

Through it all, Yablonski and his attorneys beseeched the U.S. Department of Labor to get involved, to no avail. “The Department of Labor had no interest in investigating,” says the younger Yablonski. “The entire process was riddled with fraud. It was a flawed process from beginning to end. It had reversible error all through it.”

It took the murder of his father, mother and sister for the federal government to step in.

The shocking brutality of the murders soon gave way to the startling ineptitude of the crime and cover-up. Within a month, federal investigators discovered the embezzlement to pay for the assassins, who were quickly arrested in Cleveland. A vital clue was a pad in Yablonski’s home with an Ohio license plate number on it. Apparently, the killers had been stalking him for some time – even missing several occasions to kill him when he was alone.

The sons of slain UMW official Joseph A. Yablonski, shown at press conference here, demanded prompt criminal prosecution of UMW officials who-they charge-"Have stolen money from the miners of this nation." Left to right: Kenneth J. Yablonski, Joseph A. Yablonski. (Bettman / Contributor)

Silous Huddleston, a retired miner in District 19, enlisted his son-in-law Paul Gilly, charitably described as a house painter , for the job. He, in turn, roped in Claude Vealey and Buddy Martin, two other itinerant criminals. There wasn’t a high school diploma between the three of them.

Like most people in Pennsylvania, attorney Richard Sprague read about the murders and the initial arrests in the newspaper. But he was about to become intimately involved. Washington County, like many less populous counties in Pennsylvania at the time, only had a part-time district attorney. Washington County’s D.A., Jess Costa, knew the case would be far bigger than anything he’d ever handled so he asked Sprague, who worked for future U.S. senator Arlen Specter in Philadelphia, to be special prosecutor.

Sprague brought to bear an investigation that was already shaping up to be one of the largest in state history, with local law enforcement working with the Pennsylvania State Police and FBI. “All the law enforcement agencies worked like a clock,” says Sprague, who at 94 still comes to work daily at the Philadelphia law practice he founded. “There was no jealousy.”

Ultimately, the prosecution reached Boyle, who in a moment of bittersweet satisfaction, was arrested for the murders in 1973 while he was being deposed in a related civil lawsuit by Chip Yablonski. By then, Boyle had already been convicted of embezzlement, and the following year, he was convicted of murder, one of nine people to go to prison for the Yablonski killings.

“It was really a feeling of total satisfaction that justice had fought its way through,” Sprague says. “It was a long, long road.”

The road would be just as long – and the satisfaction short-lived – to reform the union.

When news broke of Yablonski’s murder, thousands of miners in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia walked off the job. Before his death, he was a reformer. Now he was a martyr to the cause.

In April 1970, Miners for Democracy was formed to continue the reform efforts with Yablonski’s campaign – and also to continue Yablonski’s efforts to have the 1969 election invalidated. Ultimately, a judge threw out those election results and set new elections in 1972. This time, Boyle was challenged by (and lost to) Arnold Miller, a West Virginia miner whose diagnosis of black lung disease led to him becoming an advocate for miners stricken by the disease.

The year after Miller’s election, the union – with Chip Yablonski as its general counsel – rewrote its constitution, restoring autonomy to the districts and eliminating the bogus locals Boyle had used to consolidate power. But the district leaders weren’t as reform-minded as the staff, many of whom were taken from the Miners for Democracy movement, and worse yet, Miller was ill and ineffectual as president. “A lot of movements in the 1970s thought more democracy would get a better outcome, but that isn’t the case, because some people aren’t prepared to lead,” Loomis says.

The labor landscape is vastly different than it was at the time of Yablonski’s assassination. The nation has moved away from manufacturing and unionized workforces. Twenty-eight states have right-to-work laws that weaken the power of unions to organize. In 1983, union membership stood at 20.1 percent of the U.S. workforce today it’s at 10.5 percent.

That, coupled with the decline of coal use,and the rise of more efficient and less labor-intensive methods of extracting coal, has led to a decline in the coal mining workforce. “The UMW is a shell of its former self, but it’s not its fault,” Loomis says. “I’m skeptical history would have turned out differently” if Yablonski himself had made changes.

Chip Yablonski believes his father would have served just one term had he survived and become UMW president. But in death, Yablonski’s legacy and the movement his death helped inspire, lives on. Richard Trumka, who like Yablonski was a coal miner in southwestern Pennsylvania, came out of the Miners for Democracy movement to follow the same path as John L. Lewis, serving as UMW president before being elected president of the AFL-CIO, a role he still holds today.

“[Trumka] helped restore things to the way they should have been,” Yablonski says.


Lewis was born in or near Cleveland, Lucas County, Iowa (distinct from the present township of Cleveland in Davis County), to Thomas H. Lewis and Ann (Watkins) Lewis, immigrants from Llangurig, Wales. Cleveland was a company town, built around a coal mine developed one mile east of the town of Lucas. [3] His mother and grandparents were members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), and the boy was raised in the church's views regarding alcohol and sexual propriety, as well as a just social order that favored the poor. While his maternal grandfather was an RLDS pastor and Lewis periodically donated to his local RLDS church for the rest of his life, there is no definite evidence that he formally joined the Midwestern Mormon denomination. [4]

Lewis attended three years of high school in Des Moines and at the age of 17 went to work in the Big Hill Mine at Lucas. In 1906, Lewis was elected a delegate to the United Mine Workers (UMW) national convention. In 1907, he ran for mayor of Lucas and launched a feed-and-grain distributorship. Both were failures and Lewis returned to coal mining.

He moved to Panama, Illinois, where in 1909 he was elected president of the UMW local. In 1911 Samuel Gompers, the head of the AFL, hired Lewis as a full-time union organizer. Lewis traveled throughout Pennsylvania and the Midwest as an organizer and trouble-shooter, especially in coal and steel districts. [5]

After serving as statistician and then as vice-president for the UMWA, Lewis became that union's acting president in 1919. On November 1, 1919, he called the first major coal union strike, and 400,000 miners walked off their jobs. President Woodrow Wilson obtained an injunction, which Lewis obeyed, telling the rank and file, "We cannot fight the Government." In 1920, Lewis was elected president of the UMWA. He quickly asserted himself as a dominant figure in what was then the largest and most influential trade union in the country. [ citation needed ]

Coal miners worldwide were sympathetic to socialism, and in the 1920s, Communists systematically tried to seize control of UMWA locals. William Z. Foster, the Communist leader, opposed dual unions in favor of organizing within the UMWA. The radicals were most successful in the bituminous (soft) coal regions of the Midwest, where they used local organizing drives to gain control of locals, sought a national labor political party, and demanded federal nationalization of the industry. Lewis, committed to cooperation among labor, management, and government, took tight control of the union. [6]

He placed the once-autonomous districts under centralized receivership, packed the union bureaucracy with men directly beholden to him, and used UMWA conventions and publications to discredit his critics. The fight was bitter but Lewis used armed force, red-baiting, and ballot-box stuffing and, in 1928, expelled the leftists. As Hudson (1952) shows, they started a separate union, the National Miners' Union. In Southern Illinois, amidst widespread violence, the Progressive Mine Workers of America challenged Lewis but were beaten back. [7] After 1935, Lewis invited the radical organizers to work for his CIO organizing drives, and they soon gained powerful positions in CIO unions, including auto workers and electrical workers.

Lewis was often denounced as a despotic leader. He repeatedly expelled his political rivals from the UMWA, including John Walker, John Brophy, Alexander Howat and Adolph Germer. Communists in District 26 (Nova Scotia), including Canadian labor legend J. B. McLachlan, were banned from running for the union executive after a strike in 1923. McLachlan described him as "a traitor" to the working class. [8] Lewis nonetheless commanded great loyalty from many of his followers, even those he had exiled in the past.

A powerful speaker and strategist, Lewis used the nation's dependence on coal to increase the wages and improve the safety of miners, even during several severe recessions. He masterminded a five-month strike, ensuring that the increase in wages gained during World War I would not be lost. In 1921 Lewis challenged Samuel Gompers, who had led the AFL for nearly forty years, for the presidency of the AFL. William Green, one of his subordinates within the Mine Workers at the time, nominated him William Hutcheson, the President of the Carpenters, supported him. Gompers won. Three years later, on Gompers' death, Green succeeded him as AFL President. [9]

In 1924, Lewis a Republican, [10] framed a plan for a three-year contract between the UMWA and the coal operators, providing for a pay rate of $7.50 per day (about $111 in 2019 dollars when adjusted for inflation). President Coolidge and then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover were impressed with the plan, and Lewis was offered the post of Secretary of Labor in Coolidge's cabinet. Lewis declined, a decision he later regretted. Without government support, the contract talks failed and coal operators hired non-union miners. The UMWA treasury was drained, but Lewis was able to maintain the union and his position within it. He was successful in winning the 1925 anthracite (hard coal) miners' strike by his oratorical skills.

Great Depression Edit

Lewis supported Republican Herbert Hoover for US President in 1928 in 1932, as the Great Depression bore brutally on the mining camps, he officially backed Hoover but quietly supported Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1936, his union made the largest single contribution, over $500,000, to Roosevelt's successful campaign for reelection.

Lewis was appointed a member of the Labor Advisory Board and the National Labor Board of the National Recovery Administration in 1933 he used these positions to raise wages of miners and reduce competition. He gambled on a massive membership drive and won, as he piggybacked on FDR's popularity: "The President wants you to join the UMW!" Coal miners represented many ethnic groups, and Lewis shrewdly realized that they shared a faith in Roosevelt he was careful not to antagonize any of the immigrant ethnic groups, and he appealed to African-American members as well.

He secured the passage of the Guffey Coal Act in 1935, which was superseded by Guffey-Vinson Act in 1937 after the 1935 act was declared by the US Supreme Court to be unconstitutional. Both of acts were favorable to miners. Lewis had long had the idea that the highly competitive bituminous coal industry, with its sharp ups and downs and cut-throat competition, could be stabilized by a powerful union that set a standard wage scale and could keep recalcitrant owners in line with selective strikes. The acts made that possible, and coal miners entered a golden era. At all times, Lewis rejected socialism and promoted competitive capitalism. [11]

With the open support of the AFL and the tacit support of the UMWA, Franklin D. Roosevelt was nominated and elected President in 1932, and Lewis benefited from the New Deal programs that followed. Many of his members received relief. Lewis helped secure passage of the Guffey Coal Act of 1935, which raised prices and wages, but it was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. [12] Thanks to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, union membership grew rapidly, especially in the UMWA. Lewis and the UMW were major financial backers of Roosevelt's reelection in 1936 and were firmly committed to the New Deal.

At the AFL's annual convention in 1934, Lewis gained an endorsement from them of the principle of industrial unionism, as opposed to limitations to skilled workers. His goal was to unionize 400,000 steel workers, using his UMWA resources (augmented by leftists he had expelled in 1928). With the leaders of nine other large industrial unions and the UMWA in November 1935, Lewis formed the "Committee for Industrial Organization" to promote the organization of workers on an industry-wide basis. Key allies were Philip Murray (the UMWA man Lewis picked to head the steel union) Sidney Hillman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) and David Dubinsky of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU). [13]

The entire CIO group was expelled from the AFL in November 1938 and became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), with Lewis as the first president. The growth of the CIO was phenomenal in steel, rubber, meat, autos, glass and electrical equipment. In early 1937, his CIO affiliates won collective-bargaining contracts with two of the most powerful anti-union corporations, General Motors and United States Steel. General Motors surrendered as a result of the great Flint Sit-Down Strike, during which Lewis negotiated with company executives, Governor Frank Murphy of Michigan, and President Roosevelt. U.S. Steel conceded without a strike, as Lewis secretly negotiated an agreement with Myron Taylor, chairman of U.S. Steel. [14]

The CIO gained enormous strength and prestige from the victories in automobiles and steel and escalated its organizing drives, targeting industries that the AFL had long claimed, especially meatpacking, textiles, and electrical products. The AFL fought back and gained more members, but the two rivals spent much of their energy fighting each other for members and for power inside local Democratic organizations. [14]

Lewis rhetoric Edit

Journalist C. L. Sulzberger described Lewis's rhetorical skill in the "Crust of Bread" speech. Operators who opposed a contract were often shamed into agreement by Lewis's accusations. A typical Lewis speech to operators would go, "Gentlemen, I speak to you for the miners' families. The little children are gathered around a bare table without anything to eat. They are not asking for a $100,000 yacht like yours, Mr. " (here, he would gesture with his cigar toward an operator), ". or for a Rolls-Royce limousine like yours, Mr. . " (staring at another operator). They are asking only for a slim crust of bread." [15]

World War II Edit

In the presidential election of 1940, Lewis rejected Roosevelt and supported Republican Wendell Willkie. The reasons for Lewis' souring on FDR and his New Deal are still contested. Some cite his frustration over FDR's response to the General Motors and "Little Steel" strikes of 1937, or the President's purported rejection of Lewis' proposal to join him on the 1940 Democratic ticket. Others point to power struggles within the CIO as the motivation for Lewis' actions. [16] Lewis drew fierce criticism from most union leaders. Reuben Soderstrom, President of the Illinois State Federation of Labor, ripped his former ally apart in the press, saying he had become "the most imaginative, the most efficient, the most experienced truth-twisting windbag that this nation has yet produced." [17] Lewis failed to persuade his fellow members. On election day, 85% of CIO members supported Roosevelt, thus rejecting Lewis's leadership. He resigned as president of the CIO but kept control of the UMWA.

Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lewis was staunchly opposed to American entry into World War II. Initially, he tapped into the anti-militarism that animated the left wing of the CIO. [18] He publicly opposed the prospect of a peacetime draft as "associated with fascism, totalitarianism and the breakdown of civil liberties," claiming in his 1940 Labor Day speech that there was "something sinister about the attempt to force conscription upon our nation, with no revelation of the purposes for which conscription is sought." [19] [20] Lewis' opposition to American intervention continued after the leftist coalition against it had splintered. In August of 1941 he joined Herbert Hoover, Alfred Landon, Charles Dawes, and other prominent conservatives in their appeal to Congress to halt President Roosevelt's "step-by-step projection of the United States into undeclared war." [21] [22] This action earned him the enmity of those on the left, including Lee Pressman and Len De Caux. [22]

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Lewis threw his full support behind FDR's government, stating "When the nation is attacked every American must rally to its support. All other consideration becomes insignificant. With all other citizens I join in the support of our government to the day of its ultimate triumph over Japan and all other enemies." [23]

In October of 1942, Lewis withdrew the UMWA from the CIO. Six months later, he substantively violated organized labor's no-strike pledge, spurring President Roosevelt to seize the mines. [17] The strike damaged the public's perception of organized labor generally and Lewis specifically the Gallup poll of June 1943 showed 87% disapproval of Lewis. [24] Some have asserted that Lewis' actions produced shortages which crippled wartime production in the defense industry. [25]

Postwar Edit

In the postwar years, Lewis continued his militancy his miners went on strikes or "work stoppages" annually. In 1945 to 1950, [26] he led strikes that President Harry S. Truman denounced as threats to national security. In response, industry, railroads and homeowners rapidly switched from coal to oil. [27]

After briefly affiliating with the AFL, Lewis broke with them again over signing non-Communist oaths required by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, making the UMW independent. Lewis, never a Communist, still refused on principle to allow any of his officials to take the non-Communist oath required by the Taft-Hartley Act the UMW was therefore denied legal rights protected by the National Labor Relations Board. He denounced Taft-Hartley as authorizing "government by injunction" and refused to follow its provisions, saying he would not be dictated to. [28]

Lewis secured a welfare fund financed entirely by the coal companies but administered by the union. In May 1950, he signed a new contract with the coal operators, ending nine months of regional strikes and opening an era of peaceful negotiations that brought wage increases and new medical benefits, including regional hospitals in the hills. [29]

In the 1950s, Lewis won periodic wage and benefit increases for miners and led the campaign for the first Federal Mine Safety Act in 1952. Lewis tried to impose some order on a declining industry through collective bargaining, and maintaining standards for his members by insisting that small operators agree to contract terms that effectively put many of them out of business. Mechanization nonetheless eliminated many of the jobs in his industry, while scattered non-union operations persisted. [ citation needed ]

Lewis continued to be as autocratic within the UMWA, padding the union payrolls with his friends and family, ignoring or suppressing demands for a rank-and-file voice in union affairs. Finally in 1959 the passage of the Landrum-Griffin Act forced reform. It ended the practice where the UMWA had kept a number of its districts in trusteeship for decades, meaning that Lewis appointed union officers who otherwise would have been elected by the membership. [ citation needed ]

Lewis retired in early 1960. The highly paid membership slipped below 190,000 because of mechanization, strip mining, and competition from oil. He was succeeded as president by Thomas Kennedy, who served briefly until his death in 1963. He was succeeded by Lewis's anointed successor, W. A. Boyle, known as Tony, a miner from Montana. He was considered just as dictatorial as Lewis, but without any of the longtime leader's skills or vision. [ citation needed ]

  • On September 14, 1964, four years after his retirement from the UMWA, Lewis was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson, his citation reading:

"[An] eloquent spokesman of labor, [Lewis] has given voice to the aspirations of the industrial workers of the country and led the cause of free trade unions within a healthy system of free enterprise."

Lewis retired to his family home, the Lee-Fendall House in Alexandria, Virginia, where he had lived since 1937. He lived there until his death on June 11, 1969. His passing elicited many kind words and fond remembrances, even from former rivals. "He was my personal friend," wrote Reuben Soderstrom, the President of the Illinois AFL-CIO, who had once lambasted Lewis as an "imaginative windbag," upon news of his death. Lewis, he said, would forever be remembered for "making almost a half million poorly paid and poorly protected coal miners the best paid and best protected miners in all the world." [32] He is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois.


Bernstein, Irving. Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933–1941. 1969.

Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Warren Van Tine. John L. Lewis: A Biography. 1977.

Fox, Maier B. United We Stand: The United Mine Workers of America. 1990.

Galenson, Walter. The CIO Challenge to the AFL, A History of the American Labor Movement, 1935–1941. 1960.

Hevener, John W. Which Side Are You On? The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931–39. 1978.

Laslett, John H. M., ed. The United Mine Workers of America: A Model of Industrial Solidarity. 1996.

Taylor, Paul F. Bloody Harlan: The United Mine Workers of America in Harlan County, Kentucky, 1931–1941. 1989.

United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) was at one time the most powerful union in the United States. The union, which remains active in the twenty-first century, encouraged the development of the Arkansas State Federation of Labor.

The UMWA was formed in 1890 in Columbus, Ohio, when Knights of Labor Trade Assembly No. 135 merged with the National Progressive Union of Miners and Mine Laborers. This combined union banned discrimination against any members based on race, national origin, or religion. By 1898, the UMWA had achieved improvements in wages and hours per week with mine operators in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

In 1898, the UMWA began organizing miners in western Arkansas. Arkansas became a part of District 21, and by 1899, the UMWA organized its first Arkansas strike. The mine operators, employing a commonly used tactic against strikers, brought in African-American strikebreakers. The UMWA members in Huntington (Sebastian County) decided that none of their strikes could be successful while the miner operators still had these replacement workers, or “scabs,” employed. During a 1904 strike that ended with the terrorizing of black families, white miners in Bonanza (Sebastian County) requested that the mining company remove about forty black miners from the payroll. The mine operators refused, and, after this refusal, about 200 miners drove out the black workers and their families in what has been called the Bonanza Race War. Ironically, both the company and the union claimed to defend the black workers (as some were reportedly even UMWA members) and blamed each other for the violence.

In 1900, mine operators formed the National Civic Federation in order to counteract the massive gains in union membership since the turn of the century. The federation continuously published anti-union propaganda, and, along with other smaller operator-formed organizations, sought to stop to the growth of unions in the United States. Much of their propaganda grew from successful movements like the Great Anthracite Coal strike of 1902 in Pennsylvania, in which the UMWA’s major coal strike caused a nationwide shortage of coal. As winter approached, President Theodore Roosevelt had held a mediation between the operators and representatives of the UMWA for an opportunity to end the strike the operators refused to reach an accord with the workers until Roosevelt finally threatened both sides with military intervention. The miners returned to work after five months of striking.

On April 6, 1914, in Sebastian County, miners once again rose up against the operators. More than 1,000 people crowded around Mine Number Four of Prairie Creek Mining Company to hear the orations of activist Freda Hogan. The participants were so invigorated by Hogan that they marched to the mining operation in an attempt to “negotiate” with the operators. A battle between the miners and armed guards broke out, with the miners physically besting the guards. Energized by the victory, the miners continued into the mines, where they successfully shut down production and ridded the mines of all non-union workers. The UMWA was forced into a long legal battle with the company, Coronado Mining Company, for damages to the mine. In 1917, a judge ruled in favor of the company, awarding them reparations of $720,000 the UMWA settled out of court for $27,500. The sympathies of the court reflected the trend of dissatisfaction and distrust of unions and further drove a wedge between workers and government. The UMWA soon lost public favor in Arkansas after the Sebastian County action in 1914. It was also found guilty of violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act with a 1915 strike, known as the Wheelbarrow Strike, which was a reaction to the state legislature lowering miner salaries.

By 1917, the national UMWA had a membership of 334,000 miners, by far making it the largest and most powerful union in the United States. After World War I, corporations like the United States Steel Company refused to cooperate with the UMWA, accusing members of Bolshevism. But after World War I, wartime contracts—which included a freeze on wages—ran out, and in 1919, the UMWA requested sixty-percent wage increases, along with a thirty-hour work week. The mine operators refused to comply. In response, the UMWA organized a national strike day on November 1, which resulted in a twenty-seven-percent wage increase for miners.

The UMWA received federal support during the Great Depression. In 1933, with the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (which limited overproduction and allowed for collective bargaining), the union was able to force mine operators to once again accept the “closed shop,” which helped to raise wages and reinvigorate union membership. Arkansas experienced increased active membership, as well as increased union advocacy by organizers.

The UMWA played a major role in shaping the Arkansas workday for all employees within and outside the mining industry, much through federal labor regulations. In 1898, the union achieved a federal standard of the eight-hour work day. In 1946, it won a guarantee for health and retirement benefits for all workers. Then, in 1969, it was able to secure for the nation additional health and safety protections to ensure the longevity of workers.

Throughout its long history, the UMWA—which has nearly 80,000 members—has acted as a major political voice for workers. Arkansas membership is based in UMWA District 12, which runs from Louisiana up the middle of the United States. The UMWA pays out $2 million annually to retirees in Arkansas.

For additional information:
Johnson, Ben F., III. Arkansas in Modern America since 1930. 2nd ed. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2019.

Lewis, Susanne S. “The Wheelbarrow Strike of 1915: Union Solidarity in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 43 (Autumn 1984): 208–221.

Sizer, Samuel A. “‘This is Union Man’s Country’: Sebastian County, 1914.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 27 (Winter 1968): 306–329.

Steel, A. A. Coal Mining in Arkansas. Little Rock: Democrat Printing & Lithographing Co., 1910. Online at (accessed May 9, 2016).

Van Horn, Carl E., and Herbert A. Schaffner, eds. Work In America: An Encyclopedia of History, Policy, and Society. 2 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003.

United Mine Workers of America

In 1890, miners unions affiliated with the Knights of Labor and the National Progressive Union united together to create the United Mine Workers of America. This union represented all types of employees affiliated with the coalmine industry, and it worked in conjunction with the American Federation of Labor. Mine workers during this era faced harsh working conditions. Lack of safety mechanisms on machines endangered the workers. Pay commonly amounted to less than one dollar for a twelve to fourteen-hour workday, making it difficult for miners to pay their expenses. Mine owners also commonly paid their employees in scrip, company-printed money, rather than in actual United States currency. Scrip was only usable at company-owned stores, where prices were significantly higher. Finally, many mine workers were actually children, with mine owners commonly hiring boys as young as ten years of age to work in the mines. The United Mine Workers of America organized to improve working conditions for the miners.

The United Mine Workers experienced some quick success. Tens of thousands of Ohioans quickly joined the organization, including approximately twenty thousand African Americans. Due to the large membership in the United Mine Workers, in 1898, many mine owners agreed to the unions demand of an eight-hour workday. In 1920, the Bituminous Coal Commission, a federal government agency, awarded the mineworkers increased wages. Under the leadership of John L. Lewis during the 1920s, the United Mine Workers earned a reputation for its hard bargaining and willingness to strike. During World War I, the United Mine Workers refused to strike, but during World War II, the organization saw an opportunity to force the mine owners and the nation to improve working conditions. The United Mine Workers went on strike in 1943, but its actions did not help the miners in the long-run. The federal government took control of the mines, and many Americans viewed the mineworkers as traitors, since they went on strike during a period of national crisis. Despite this setback, Lewis did succeed in guaranteeing every mine worker over sixty-two years of age a one hundred dollar pension every month. He also helped organize the Congress of Industrial Organizations, although the United Mine Workers generally refused to acquiesce to the demands of other national unions like the CIO or the American Federation of Labor.

Following Lewis's death in 1959, the United Mine Workers entered a period of internal turmoil and in fighting. Numerous prominent members sought to gain control of the union. Several leaders were eventually convicted of making illegal contributions to political candidates, hoping to sway those candidates in favor of the unions views. In 1974, one president of the United Mine Workers, W.A. Boyle was arrested and convicted of ordering the murder of one of his union opponents, Joseph A. Yablonski.

During the 1980s and the 1990s, tensions within the United Mine Workers eased. Unfortunately for the workers, they now faced new problems in the workplace. Automation of the mines improved working conditions, but it also reduced the need for miners. Also, the growing popularity of other energy sources, especially natural gas, also reduced the need for coalminers and a desire by employers to cut their employees benefits to reduce company expenditures. Union membership declined precipitously. In 1998, 240,000 miners belonged to the United Mine Workers. Fifty years earlier, the union had 500,000 members. To enhance its voice, the United Mine Workers joined the AFL-CIO in 1989.


Boyle was born in a gold mining camp in Bald Butte, Montana (about two miles southwest of Marysville), in 1904 to James and Catherine (Mallin) Boyle. His father was a miner. The Boyle family was of Irish descent, and several generations of Boyles had worked as miners in England and Scotland. [ citation needed ] Boyle attended public schools in Montana and Idaho before graduating from high school. [1] He went to work in the mines alongside his father. Shortly thereafter, Boyle's father died from tuberculosis, a lung disease often associated with mining, or exacerbated by its conditions.

Boyle married Ethel Williams in 1928 they had a daughter, Antoinette.

Boyle joined the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) soon after going to work in the mines. He was appointed president of District 27 (which covers Montana) and served in that capacity until 1948. During World War II, Boyle served on several government wartime production boards, and on the Montana State Unemployment Compensation Commission.

In 1948, UMWA president John L. Lewis named Boyle as his assistant in the UMWA. He served until 1960, acting as Lewis' chief trouble-shooter and the union's chief administrator. Lewis simultaneously appointed him director of UMWA District 50 and regional director of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) for four Western states.

Boyle was elected vice president of UMWA in 1960. That same year, Lewis retired and 73-year-old Thomas Kennedy assumed leadership of the union. Kennedy had been vice president since 1947. Although Lewis favored Boyle as his successor, Kennedy was well liked and well known. Kennedy was in failing health, however, and Boyle took over many of the president's duties. In November 1962, Kennedy became too frail and ill to continue his duties. Boyle was named acting-president. Kennedy died on January 19, 1963. Boyle was elected president shortly thereafter, obviously Lewis's handpicked choice.

From the beginning of his tenure, Boyle faced significant opposition from rank-and-file miners and UMWA leaders. Miners' attitudes about their union had changed. Miners wanted greater democracy and more local autonomy for their local unions. [ citation needed ] There was a widespread belief that Boyle was more concerned with protecting mine owners' interests than those of his members. Grievances filed by the union often took months—sometimes years—to resolve, lending credence to the critics' claim. Wildcat strikes occurred as local unions, despairing of UMWA assistance, sought to resolve local disputes with walkouts. [ citation needed ]

In 1969, Joseph "Jock" Yablonski challenged Boyle for the presidency of UMWA. Yablonski had been president of UMWA District 5 (an appointed position) until Boyle had removed him in 1965. In an election widely seen as corrupt, [ citation needed ] Boyle defeated Yablonski in the election held on December 9 by a margin of nearly two-to-one (80,577 to 46,073). Although Boyle won, the election was the first time since 1920 that the incumbents had less than 80 percent or more of the vote, or that there was any opposition at all. Observers expected the union to make changes in response to the growing insurgency movement and demands for change.

Yablonski conceded the election, but on December 18, 1969, asked the United States Department of Labor (DOL) to investigate the election for fraud. He also initiated five lawsuits against UMWA in federal court. [2]

On December 31, 1969, three killers shot Yablonski, his wife, Margaret, and his 25-year-old daughter, Charlotte, as they slept in the Yablonski home in Clarksville, Pennsylvania. The bodies were discovered on January 5, 1970, by Yablonski's eldest son, Kenneth.

Boyle was found to have ordered Yablonski's death months earlier, on June 23, 1969, after a meeting with his opponent at UMWA headquarters had degenerated into a screaming match. [ citation needed ] In September 1969, UMWA executive council member Albert Pass received $20,000 from Boyle (who had embezzled the money from union funds) to hire assassins to kill Yablonski. Paul Gilly, an out-of-work house painter and son-in-law of a minor UMWA official, and two drifters, Aubran Martin and Claude Vealey, agreed to do the job. Pass arranged for the murder to be postponed until after the election, to avoid suspicion falling on Boyle. [3] [4]

Yablonski's murder acted as a catalyst for the federal investigation already requested. On January 8, 1970, Yablonski's attorney requested an immediate investigation of the 1969 election by DOL. [ citation needed ] The Department of Labor had taken no action on Yablonski's complaints in the brief time since his December request. After the murders, Labor Secretary George P. Shultz assigned 230 investigators to the UMWA investigation. [ citation needed ]

The Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) of 1959 regulates the internal affairs of labor unions, requiring regular secret-ballot elections for local union offices and providing for federal investigation of election fraud or impropriety. DOL is authorized under the act to sue in federal court to have the election overturned. By 1970, however, only three international union elections had been overturned by the courts. [5]

Meanwhile, a reform group, Miners for Democracy (MFD), had formed in April 1970 while the DOL investigation continued. Its members included most of the miners who belonged to the West Virginia Black Lung Association and many of Yablonski's supporters and campaign staff. The chief organizers of Miners for Democracy included Yablonski's sons, Ken and Joseph (known as "Chip"), both labor attorneys Mike Trbovich, a union leader, and others. [6]

DOL filed suit in federal court in 1971 to overturn the 1969 UMWA election. On May 1, 1972, Judge William B. Bryant threw out the results of the 1969 UMWA international union elections. Bryant scheduled a new election to be held over the first eight days of December 1972. Additionally, Bryant agreed that DOL should oversee the election, to ensure fairness. [7]

Over the weekend of May 26 to May 28, 1972, MFD delegates gathered in Wheeling, West Virginia, nominated Arnold Miller, a former miner and leader of a black-lung organization, as their candidate for the presidency of UMWA. [8]

On December 22, 1972, the Labor Department certified Miller as UMWA's next president. The vote was 70,373 for Miller and 56,334 for Boyle. Miller was the first candidate to defeat an incumbent president in UMWA history, and the first native West Virginian to lead the union. [ citation needed ] [4]

In early March 1971, Boyle was indicted for embezzling $49,250 in union funds to make illegal campaign contributions in the 1968 presidential race. He was convicted in December 1973 to a three-year sentence and imprisoned at the federal penitentiary in Springfield, Missouri.

On September 6, 1973, Boyle was arrested on first degree murder charges in the deaths of Jock Yablonski and his family. That month, Boyle attempted suicide but failed. [9] National attention had been riveted on the investigations into the conspiracy to slay labor leader Joseph A. Yablonski. A nationwide FBI investigation produced sufficient evidence to charge three Cleveland-area residents with conspiracy to slay Yablonski. Through Grand Jury proceedings, a series of three conspiracy indictments were returned, charging five individuals. The investigation was conducted by U.S. Attorney Robert B. Krupansky, with Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Jones (Ohio lawyer). [10]

Finally documentation and witnesses led to Boyle: “TONY BOYLE CHARGED IN YABLONSKI KILLING” they screamed on September 6th, 1973. [11] His trial lasted from 25 March until April 11, 1974, when he was convicted. He was sentenced to three consecutive terms of life in prison.

On January 28, 1977, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania overturned Boyle's conviction and ordered that he be given a new trial. The court found that the trial judge had improperly refused to allow a government auditor to testify. Boyle's attorneys said that the auditor's testimony could have exonerated Boyle. [12]

On January 16, 1978 Boyle's murder retrial was set to resume. He had been convicted, but the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court had set aside the convictions on grounds Boyle was denied the right to present a complete defense. [13]

Boyle was tried a second time for the Yablonski slayings and found guilty on February 18, 1978. Boyle filed a third appeal to overturn his conviction in July 1979, but the motion was denied. Boyle served his murder sentence at State Correctional Institution – Dallas in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. [4] He suffered from a number of stomach and heart ailments in his final years and was repeatedly hospitalized. He had a stroke in 1983. He died at a hospital in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on May 31, 1985, aged 80.

Barbara Kopple's 1976 documentary Harlan County USA included a segment on Yablonski's murder and its aftermath. It also includes the song "Cold Blooded Murder" (also known as "The Yablonski Murder"), sung by Hazel Dickens.

The murders were also portrayed in a 1986 HBO television movie, Act of Vengeance. Charles Bronson (a native of Ehrenfeld, in the western Pennsylvania mining region) portrayed Yablonski and Wilford Brimley played Boyle. [14]


Joseph Yablonski, called "Jock", was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on March 3, 1910, as the son of Polish immigrants, [1] After attending public schools, Yablonski began working in the mines as a boy, joining his father in this industry.

After his father was killed in a mine explosion, Yablonski became active in the United Mine Workers and began to advocate for better working conditions. He was first elected to union office in 1934. In 1940, Yablonski was elected as a representative to the international executive board. In 1958 he was appointed president of UMW District 5. [2]

As a young man, Yablonski married Ann (née Huffman). Their son Kenneth J. Yablonski was born in 1934. Yablonski married again, to Margaret Rita (née Wasicek), an amateur playwright. They had two children, Joseph "Chip" (b. 1941) and Charlotte Yablonski, b. 1944. Both sons became labor attorneys, representing their father in his union activities and later in private practices. Charlotte became a social worker in Clarksville, Pennsylvania, where her family lived. She took leave to work in 1969 on her father's campaign for the UMWA presidency. [2]

Yablonski clashed with Tony Boyle, who was elected president of the UMW in 1963, over how the union should be run. He believed that Boyle did not adequately represent the miners and was too cozy with the mine owners. In 1965, Boyle removed Yablonski as president of District 5 (under changes enacted by Boyle, district presidents were appointed by him, rather than being elected by union members of their district, giving him more control. [2]

In May 1969, Yablonski announced his candidacy for president of the union in the election to be held later that year. As early as June, Boyle was reportedly discussing the need to kill his opponent. [2]

The United Mine Workers was in turmoil by 1969. Legendary UMWA president John L. Lewis had retired in 1960. His successor, Thomas Kennedy, died in 1963. From retirement, Lewis hand-picked Boyle for the UMWA presidency. A Montana miner, Boyle was as autocratic and bullying as Lewis, but not as well liked. [3] [4]

From the beginning of his administration, Boyle faced significant opposition from rank-and-file miners and UMWA leaders. Miners' attitudes about their union had also changed. Miners wanted greater democracy and more autonomy for their local unions. There was also a widespread belief that Boyle was more concerned with protecting mine owners' interests than those of his members. Grievances filed by the union often took months—sometimes years—to resolve, lending credence to the critics' claim. Wildcat strikes occurred as local unions, despairing of UMWA assistance, sought to resolve local disputes with walkouts. [3] [4] [5]

In 1969, Yablonski challenged Boyle for the presidency of UMWA. [4] He was the first anti-administration insurgent candidate in 40 years. [2] In an election widely seen as corrupt, Boyle beat Yablonski in the election held on December 9, by a margin of nearly two-to-one (80,577 to 46,073). [2] Yablonski conceded the election. [6]

On December 18, 1969, he asked the United States Department of Labor (DOL) to investigate the election for fraud. [7] He also initiated five civil lawsuits against UMWA in federal court, on related matters. He alleged that: Boyle and UMWA had denied him use of the union's mailing lists as provided for by law, he had been removed from his position as acting director of Labor's Non-Partisan League in retaliation for his candidacy, the UMW Journal was being used by Boyle as a campaign and propaganda mouthpiece, UMWA had no rules for fair elections, and had printed nearly 51,000 excess ballots which should have been destroyed and UMWA had violated its fiduciary duties by spending union funds on Boyle's reelection. [8] These charges and their resolution are outlined in the civil case Kenneth J. Yablonski and Joseph A. Yablonski v. United Mine Workers of America et al., 466 F.2d 424 (August 3, 1972), which his sons carried to the end.

On December 31, 1969, three hitmen fatally shot Yablonski, his wife Margaret, and his 25-year-old daughter Charlotte, as they slept in the Yablonski home in Clarksville, Pennsylvania. The bodies were discovered on January 5, 1970, by one of Yablonski's sons, Kenneth.

An investigation found that the killings had been ordered by Boyle, who had demanded Yablonski's death on June 23, 1969, after a meeting with Yablonski at UMWA headquarters degenerated into a shouting match. In September 1969, UMWA executive council member Albert Pass received $20,000 from Boyle (who had embezzled the money from union funds) to hire gunmen to kill Yablonski. He hired Paul Gilly, an out-of-work house painter and son-in-law of Silous Huddleston, a minor UMWA official, and two drifters, Aubran Martin and Claude Vealey. [2] [3] [9]

The murder was ordered postponed until after the election, however, to avoid suspicion falling on Boyle. After three aborted attempts to murder Yablonski, the killers completed the assassinations, deciding to kill everyone in the house. They left so many fingerprints behind that the police identified and captured them within three days. [2] [3] [9]

A few hours after Yablonski's funeral, several of the miners who had supported Yablonski met in the basement of the church where the memorial service was held. They met with attorney Joseph Rauh and drew up plans to establish a reform caucus within the United Mine Workers. [10]

The day after the bodies of the Yablonskis were discovered, 20,000 miners in West Virginia walked off the job in a one-day strike, protesting against Boyle, who they believed was responsible for the murders. [11]

On January 8, 1970, Yablonski's attorney waived the right to further internal review of the election by the union and requested an immediate investigation by DOL of the 1969 union presidential election. On January 17, 1972, the United States Supreme Court granted Mike Trbovich, a 51-year-old coal mine shuttle car operator and union member from District 5 (Yablonski's district), permission to intervene in the DOL suit as a complainant, which kept Yablonski's election fraud suit alive. Labor Secretary George P. Shultz assigned 230 investigators to the UMWA investigation and Attorney General Mitchell ordered the FBI to join the murder inquiry. [3] [9] [12]

The Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) of 1959 regulates the internal affairs of labor unions, requiring regular secret-ballot elections for local union offices and providing for federal investigation of election fraud or impropriety. DOL is authorized under the act to sue in federal court to have the election overturned. By 1970, however, only three international union elections had been overturned by the courts. [13]

Gilly, Martin and Vealey were arrested days after the assassinations and indicted for Yablonski's death. All were convicted of first-degree murder. Gilly and Vealey were sentenced to death (the death sentences were later reduced to life in prison due to Furman v. Georgia) Martin avoided execution by pleading guilty and turning state's evidence. [14]

Eventually, investigators arrested Paul Gilly's wife, Annette Lucy Gilly [15] [16] her father Silous Huddleston [17] Albert Pass (who had given the money to pay the conspirators for murder) and Pass's wife. All were convicted of murder and conspiracy to commit murder, in trials extending into 1973. [18] (Both Annette Gilly and her father Silous Huddleston pleaded guilty in 1972, receiving life sentences to avoid the death penalty.) [19]

Miners for Democracy (MFD) formed in April 1970, while the DOL investigation of the 1969 election continued. Its members included most of the miners who belonged to the West Virginia Black Lung Association and many of Yablonski's supporters and former campaign staff. MFD's support was strongest in southwestern Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and the panhandle and northern portions of West Virginia, but MFD supporters existed in nearly all affiliates. The chief organizers of Miners for Democracy included Yablonski's sons, Joseph (known as "Chip") and Ken, Mike Trbovich, and other union supporters. [3] [20] [21]

DOL filed suit in federal court in 1971 to overturn the 1969 UMWA election. After several lengthy delays, the suit went to trial on September 12, 1971. On May 1, 1972, Judge William Bryant threw out the results of the 1969 UMWA international union elections.

Bryant scheduled a new election to be held during the first eight days of December 1972. In addition, Bryant agreed that DOL should oversee the election to ensure fairness. [22] [23]

On May 28, 1972, MFD nominated Arnold Miller, a miner from West Virginia who challenged Boyle for the presidency, based on the need for black lung legislation to protect the miners. [3] [24]

Balloting for the next UMWA president began on December 1, 1972. Balloting ended on December 9, and Miller was declared the victor on December 15. The Labor Department certified Miller as UMWA's next president on December 22. The vote was 70,373 for Miller and 56,334 for Boyle. [3] [25]

Two of the convicted murderers had accused Boyle of masterminding and funding the assassination plot. The murder investigation and confessions of other conspirators revealed the financial and other trails leading back to Boyle. In April 1973 Boyle was indicted on three counts of murder he was convicted in April 1974. He was sentenced to three consecutive life terms in prison, where he died in 1985. [26]

In 1973, Yablonski posthumously received the Samuel S. Beard Award for Greatest Public Service by an Individual 35 Years or Under, made annually by Jefferson Awards. [27]

Barbara Kopple's 1976 documentary, Harlan County USA, included a segment on Yablonski's murder and its aftermath. It also includes the song "Cold Blooded Murder" (also known as "The Yablonski Murder"), sung by Hazel Dickens.

John Sayles's novel Union Dues (1977) is a fictional account of miners fighting for proper union representation in 1969. The Boyle-Yablonski dispute is a sub-plot which several characters mention, expressing their opinions of unions and corruption.

The 1986 HBO television movie, Act of Vengeance, was about the union struggle and the murders. Wilford Brimley played Boyle and Charles Bronson (a native of Ehrenfeld in the western Pennsylvania mining region) portrayed Yablonski. [29]

Watch the video: UMWA: 125 Years of Struggle and Glory