Review: Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Workers of America
by Mark A. Bradley
It is now 52 years since the founding of the Association for Union Democracy, an organization birthed in the heyday of the union democracy fights of the 1960s. In that same year, a remarkable and tragic event occurred that would rock the United Steelworkers of America to its core and provide AUD with one of its first challenges to the labor aristocracy’s status quo. Blood Runs Coal covers the genesis of this event and the ensuing fallout from beginning to end in the style of creative non-fiction with a police procedural touch. Author Mark A. Bradley (a former attorney with the Department of Justice) paints a stark and compelling portrait of the significance of his subject both to the trade union world in particular and to a wider interested audience.
On the night of December 31st, 1969, three men broke into the house of Jock Yablonski and proceeded to shoot and kill the fifty-nine year old union dissident, his wife, and daughter. Yablonski had recently run for the presidency of the United Mine Workers of America against the incumbent President Tony Boyle on the “Miners For Democracy (MFD) Slate”, promising reform of the union administration’s autocratic structure and a greater voice to the membership. The election itself was, in Yablonski and his allies’ view, totally compromised by the governing administration’s conduct during the voting and collection of ballots. A full decade after the passage of the LMRDA, Yablonski sought help from the Nixon Administration’s Department of Labor both during the campaign and after the ratification of the election results by the United Mine Workers. He was largely ignored, not on the basis of the substance of his claims, but due to what Joe Rauh (who became heavily involved with Yablonski’s slate, Miners For Democracy) called their “icy indifference”.
After the vicious murders of Yablonski, his wife and daughter, Rauh and “Chip” Yablonski (Jock’s son) led a long march-style campaign through the internal UMW’s relevant “remedies”, though the bureaucratic meat grinder of the Department of Labor, and into the press-labor and otherwise-to expose the 1969 election as a sham, an utter violation of Federal Labor Law, and the motivation for a brutal triple homicide.
During the union’s DOL ordered rerun, it wasn’t just UMW members who joined the fight, but many young student activists and social reformers sought to help the Miners for Democracy Slate in any way that they could. Included were young politicos affiliated with the New Left and hot off the campus battles raging over the Vietnam War, Racial Segregation, and (most relevantly) wealth inequality. As well, many like-minded attorneys and activists associated with consumer advocacy groups like NYPIRG were inspired by the grassroots social action at the heart of Miners for Democracy. The ethos of the decade had encouraged these young and politically active segments of the society to take up the cause of more democratic, transparent, and responsive unionism both in the UMW and the United Steel Workers caucus Steelworkers Fight Back.
The participation of many young and middle class kids was in direct contradiction with the common perception of the working class “hard hats” being the enemy of the campus radical “longhairs”. Indeed young union reformists, both from within and without the UMW, would play an outsized part in campaigning for Arnold Miller and his slate; giving out flyers at the gates of Steel Plants, knocking on doors to spread the good word, so to speak, and risking violent retaliation from Boyle’s hired thugs. Perhaps most inspiring is the lack of a central movement motivating these union democracy partisans. Activists of the 1960s social movements typically had some sort of central organizational structure they could count on as a standard bearer when reckoning with a particular social issue, be it SDS, the Weathermen, the Yippies, et al. The struggle for industrial unionism (let alone union democracy, a cause spurned by many self-described “allies” of Labor) had no such cachet, however, Big Labor being seen as compromised in some ways by the Cold War consensus. It was true that some radical groups like the Socialist Workers Party and the Progressive Labor Party sent some of their cadres into the industrial workforce to agitate on behalf of proletarian solidarity, socialist revolution, etc. but their numbers were so small and their message so sectarian that the influence they commanded proved (mostly) inconsequential. Slightly more visible were the “Nader’s Raiders” liberal attorneys who advocated on behalf of the MFD, but did so motivated more by the scourge of black lung than union democracy qua union democracy. Most young activists came to such far flung centers of mining as West Virginia and Tennessee to do their part.
Arnold Miller was in many ways an imperfect conduit by which Miners for Democracy came to victory. Like Yablonski (and, indeed, Tony Boyle), Miller was a union bureaucrat who hadn’t worked inside a mine in years prior to the 1972 election and had served in the incumbent Boyle Administration to boot. He was no fiery reformer, lacking personal charisma and affecting a meek and servile manner. And yet, both radicals and moderates within the MFD slate respected his even handed leadership style and saw him as a solid compromise to ward off internal schisms. It may well be that Arnold Miller’s sober and judicious manner helped his campaign as he positioned himself in contrast to the remote, Bourbonesque Tony Boyle.
Upon the ultimate tallying of ballots in the 1972 UMW presidential election, “there was much rejoicing”. The Mine Workers (and their allies) present who supported the MFD slate raised a great ruckus when the final count was announced:
Tony Boyle: 56,334
Arnold Miller: 70,373
The victory and overwhelming mandate it buoyed provoked an outpouring of emotion from all present at the courtroom in which the election was certified and, subsequently, in the basement of the Mine Workers Building in Washington D.C, where the inauguration took place, including the leadership. The usually taciturn Miller “…found himself moist eyed and turned away in embarrassment” according to campaign staffer Tom Bethell.
For the bulk of his first term, Miller did show a genuine interest in making the United Mine Workers a more democratic union. The first convention he presided over was marked by its complete dissimilarity from those conducted under the old regime. Dissidents and Old Guard alike were allowed to hold forth on the various grievances they had with management, each other, and the new administration. While some officials, particularly those whose job it was to oversee the logistics of the convention, saw it as pure chaos the general consensus was the event combined chaos with a healthy democratic debate. Such was the tentative attitude of the leadership flush with victory but wary of its precarious new position.
This combination of both a militant and civil-libertarian ethos was best exemplified during what could be termed as the Heyday of Rank-and-File Unionism in the 1970s. Proliferating at that time (and discussed at various points in this paper) were reform caucuses like the aforementioned Miners For Democracy, Steelworkers Fight Back, Teamsters for a Democratic Union among others. Unlike the decades prior to the passage of the LMRDA, theses movements could exploit new freedoms, particularly spelled out in Title IV of the Act, to run for office, sue for equal time with the incumbent administrations, and seek legal recourse (whether in the courts or the Department of Labor) when said democratic rights were compromised.
The threat of retributive violence was still real, however, as demonstrated by Bradley in his magnificent book on the Yablonski Murders and thereafter. For those locked in a continuous struggle to make the labor movement more democratic and responsive to rank and file concerns, it is a sobering reminder of what those who have come before us endured on behalf of their ideals.