Historical Markers
Joseph A. "Jock" Yablonski Historical Marker
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Joseph A. Jock Yablonski

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
3rd and Wood Sts., California

Dedication Date:
November 4, 1995

Behind the Marker

A color photograph of Jock Yablonski kneeling and talking to six sitting miners.
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Jock Yablonski talking to miners, 1969.
"Today I am announcing my candidacy for the presidency of the United Mine Workers of America. I do so out of a deep awareness of the insufferable gap between the union leadership and the working miners that has bred neglect of miners' needs and aspirations and generated a climate of fear and inhibition."

With these words in 1969, Joseph "Jock" Yablonski proclaimed his challenge to Tony Boyle, incumbent president, and other leaders of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Yablonski had worked in coal mines and his father had died in a mine accident. He identified closely with miners and sought to redress their grievances. He believed that UMWA leaders, especially Boyle, were corrupt and self-serving. Yablonski's campaign was part of a larger reform movement within the UMWA, a movement that Boyle tried to decapitate by having Yablonski murdered.
A color photograph of W.A. "Tony" Boyle, president of the United Mine Workers of America, gesturing during a two hour news conference at the National Press Club.
W.A. "Tony" Boyle, president of the United Mine Workers of America.

Yablonski's challenge originated in the undermining of union democracy, which began in the 1920s. John L. Lewis, president of the UMWA from 1919 to 1960, systematically purged opponents and centralized power tightly in his own hands. He used his constitutional authority to replace his opponents with loyal subordinates as the heads of union districts, sub-districts, and locals. He denied authority to rank-and-file miners.

Lewis's successors as president, including Tony Boyle, who took office in 1963, strengthened this autocratic leadership. Under Boyle power was an end unto itself, rather than a means by which union leaders could address members' grievances. By 1969 nineteen of twenty-three district presidents had been appointed by the UMWA president, rather than democratically elected by union members. Boyle and other union leaders also ignored repeated entreaties from the rank and file for democratic elections and accountability. A widening gulf grew between leaders and members who resented and distrusted those at the top.
Jock Yablonski, Governor William Scranton, and others posing for this photograph.
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Governor William Scranton (center) at signing ceremony amending Pennsylvania's...

Rank-and-file miners also became increasingly alienated during the 1960s over leaders' handling of the union's Welfare and Retirement Fund. Lewis and the UMWA made a major accomplishment in establishing this Fund by the early 1950s, since miners relied heavily on the pension payments and health benefits for themselves and their families.

The Fund also had a major weakness: Royalties based on coal production at unionized mines financed the Fund. As production fell periodically, royalties slumped, and the UMWA had to cut medical benefits and pension payments regularly, which sparked grievances among active and retired miners. In addition, income from union investments in coal companies helped make the UMWA the richest union in America during the 1960s, but union leaders used this wealth to finance the union and gird their own power rather than to support members' pensions and health-care needs.

Union members also became increasingly restive over the issue of preventing and compensating miners for black lung, a disease caused by inhaling coal dust in the mines. Pennsylvania passed legislation in 1965 that compensated miners for black lung, despite opposition from Boyle and mine operators. Boyle opposed the legislation because of union leaders' close relationship with the operators. Leadership depended on union investments in coal companies and royalties from operators.
Group photograph of Members of District 19"s "goon squad" pose with Albert "Little Hitler" Pass.
Members of District 19"s "goon squad" pose with Albert "Little Hitler" Pass

All these events set the stage for Yablonski's 1969 challenge to Boyle and other UMWA leaders. Yablonski concluded that Boyle was stupid and oblivious to miners' concerns. "The goddamn man just rants and raves and he doesn't know what he is talking about," Yablonski stated privately. In addition, Boyle had forced a rebellious Yablonski to resign from the presidency of UMWA District 5 in 1966, and Yablonski had vowed revenge. His wife Margaret, daughter Charlotte, and Ralph Nader, the prominent public-advocacy crusader, encouraged him to run for UMWA president and reform the union.

 When Yablonski declared his candidacy for president, he knew that Boyle would fight back fiercely. Boyle funneled money to supporters who paid bribes, packed meetings with loyalists, and used other illegal means to prevent Yablonski from being nominated for president at union local meetings. Still Yablonski secured enough nominations from locals to get on the ballot, but Boyle's machine continued its relentless attacks up to the election.

According to the UMWA's tally, Boyle defeated Yablonski by 74,000 votes to 41,000. But Yablonski charged Boyle with winning the election fraudulently, including falsifying voting returns, intimidating voters, ejecting Yablonski's observers from polling places, and even having coal operators vote. Yablonski refused to admit defeat, despite the UMWA tally. He proclaimed, "I have a constituency now and I intend to represent it."
Protesting Miners carry hold signs that read "Boyle Wanted for Murder", "Boyle Stole Two Elections", and "Bloody Paid Killers".
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Miners for Democracy, Yablonski supporters, protest Boyle appearance in Pittsburgh,...

Yablonski never had a chance to represent this constituency or reform the union. Early on the morning of December 31, 1969, three men crept inside his home in Clarksville, Pennsylvania, as he, his wife, and daughter slept. One man shot Charlotte, and a second man shot Jock and Margaret before Jock could load a shotgun he kept by his bed.

 The murders made national headlines and sent shock waves through the UMWA. Arrested and tried, the three men were found guilty of being hired by UMWA district officials to kill Yablonski. The slayings also prompted an investigation by the United States Department of Labor, which found systematic election fraud and ordered a new election under federal government supervision.

Further investigation uncovered Boyle's illegal use of union funds for his campaign, and Boyle was convicted of embezzlement and misuse of funds. Eventually Boyle was also found guilty for ordering the murders, and he spent the rest of his life in prison. He died in 1985 in a Wilkes-Barre hospital. The tragic murders eventually brought an end to autocratic and corrupt rule in the UMWA.
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