On New Year’s Eve 1969, the murder of Jock Yablonski closed out a decade already bloody with assassinations. The crusading labor leader and his wife, Margaret, and daughter, Charlotte, were gunned down in their beds at home in Clarksville, Pa., a small Mon Valley town an hour south of Pittsburgh.
The killings made national news, sparked an FBI manhunt, and eventually led to the conviction of both the hit men and Tony Boyle, the United Mine Workers of America president who Yablonski had unsuccessfully attempted to unseat just weeks before he was assassinated. Boyle had ordered Yablonski’s murder.
Mark A. Bradley tells the story in his new book “Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Workers of America” (Norton).
Bradley, a former U.S. Department of Justice lawyer and CIA intelligence officer, is now director of the Information Security Oversight Office of the National Archives and Records Administration. In “Blood Runs Coal,” he lays out the labor politics that prefaced the killing before providing a detailed account of the assassins’ work and the trial that brought them to justice.
It’s an unusual blend of labor history and true crime, Bradley acknowledges.
“I thought it was time to take these murders and put them into some type of historical context that I still believe had lessons for today,” he said by phone from his home in Arlington, Va.
Yablonski, the son of Polish immigrants, was born in Pittsburgh, in 1910, in Polish Hill. His family moved to California, Pa., when he was young, and he lived most of his life in the region, starting as a miner and climbing the union ladder. By the late 1950s, Yablonski was a prominent enough union leader to warrant consideration to replace the legendary John L. Lewis as president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). He was beaten out by Boyle, a Montana native whom Bradley paints as ruthless, and corrupt enough to sell out his own miners in sweetheart deals with mining companies.
Spurred on in part by famed consumer advocate Ralph Nader, in May 1969, Yablonski launched a longshot candidacy for the UMW presidency, a quest he knew put his life at risk. A month later, Boyle ordered the upstart reformer’s murder. The Cleveland-based killers Bradley characterizes as “hillbilly hitmen” (they had roots in Appalachia) needed six months and eight trips to Clarksville to complete the task.
A hero of the second half of “Blood Runs Coal” is storied Philadelphia-based prosecutor Richard Sprague, who engineered the convictions of the hit men. Boyle was convicted on conspiracy charges in 1974 – two years after a U.S. Department of Labor investigation into the 1969 UMW election led to the overturning of his victory over Yablonski.
The Yablonski killings were big news, and so were the trials. But while the assassination’s 50th anniversary, a year ago, drew a bit of media attention, the events are all but forgotten now. That’s just why Bradley wrote the book.
“I wanted particularly to remind people about how important the labor movement once was in this country,” Bradley said. Today, only about 10 percent of U.S. workers are union members; for decades after World War II, through the late ’60s, that figure was close to 30 percent, or even higher. Labor’s power to change policy was proportional.
“Without the unions, we wouldn’t have sick leave, we wouldn't have health insurance, you wouldn't have pensions, you wouldn't have worker safety,” Bradley. “The unions play such a critical, critical role in things now that we take for granted. And all that seems to have been unfortunately, sadly, forgotten.”
The UMWA was particularly important, he says. Its accomplishments, which began prior to the war, paved the way for unions in industries including steel, auto and rubber. That history of leadership was a big reason, Bradley said, Yablonski was willing to risk his life by seeking the presidency: Under Boyle, pay and benefits for rank-and-file miners had lagged badly. Yablonski wanted the UMWA to return to the vanguard of American unions.
In a terrible irony, Yablonski's death sparked the kind of reforms he’d been unable to achieve in life. After the assassination, even as the hit men were being tracked down and tried, the U.S. Department of Labor began investigating the 1969 UMWA election. Yablonski’s sons, Chip and Kenneth, helped organize miners into a democratic resistance to Boyle’s autocratic rule. In 1972, in a new election overseen by the DOL, Boyle lost to reformer Arnold Miller; the following year he was arrested, beginning his own journey through the justice system.
Boyle's defeat "inspired other workers in other movements, other labor unions, to see what they could do about their own ossified leadership,” said Bradley. “Yablonski’s blood, as I say in the book, purged the UMWA. But it also … inspired workers that they could stand up and actually try to bring their unions back to what they were supposed to be, which was a representative organization for the workers that they actually represented.”
Boyle died in prison, in 1985. And, as Bradley opines in his book, “the era in which unions were important enough to kill for died with him.”
Caption for the second photo: Labor leader Jock Yablonski was assassinated at his home, in Greene County, on Dec. 31, 1969.