Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Workers of America

Image of Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Workers of America
Release Date: 
October 13, 2020
W. W. Norton & Company
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“In Blood Runs Coal, former CIA officer and Justice Department attorney Mark A. Bradley reveals the appalling story of the Yablonski murders, combining elements of true crime drama and legal thriller with a perceptive exploration of a transformative moment in modern labor history.”

In the first chapter of Stayin’ Alive, his sweeping and perceptive study of the decline of the American working class in the 1970s, historian Jefferson Cowie describes national union leadership at beginning of the decade—with one notable exception—as “more sclerotic than violent, more bureaucratic than corrupt, and more complacent than cynical.” This was hardly a ringing endorsement, and the inertia of Big Labor (at the beginning of the last full decade in which the term applied) was enough to trigger significant amounts of rank-and-file insurgency and much-needed reform over the next four years.

The urgent need to challenge to labor’s prevailing hegemony began in the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), a union where trouble ran deeper than in other labor organizations. Under the despotic rule of union president Tony Boyle, violence, terror, and embezzlement reigned. And on New Year’s Eve, 1969, that violence culminated in multiple homicides, with the contract murders of Boyle’s most recent challenger for the UMWA presidency, Joseph “Jock” Yablonski, Yablonski’s wife Margaret, and his daughter Charlotte.

In Blood Runs Coal, former CIA officer and Justice Department attorney Mark A. Bradley reveals the appalling story of the Yablonski murders, combining elements of true crime drama and legal thriller with a perceptive exploration of a transformative moment in modern labor history.

In the first book-length investigation of the case, Death and the Mines (1971), future ABC News White House correspondent Brit Hume provided a detailed journalistic take on the murders and explosive atmosphere in which they occurred. But Bradley’s book reveals parts of the story that had yet to unfold at the time of the Hume book’s publication—foremost among them, the lengthy and circuitous playout of the case in the courts, which ultimately connected Boyle to the crimes and brought him to justice several years after the fact. The case’s ultimate outcome, as Bradley writes, was nearly as remarkable as the murders themselves: “Boyle is the highest-ranking American union leader ever convicted of first-degree murder.”

Boyle’s efforts to obliterate Yablonski’s candidacy and fix the election—including threats of violence during the campaign, months before he issued the kill order—anchor a sobering true story of the violent lengths to which a ruthless demagogue with dynastic aspirations, surrounded by goons and yes men, will go to retain absolute power over a nominally democratic organization.

Bradley makes a compelling case for the corrupted state of the UMWA in the late 1960s that necessitated Yablonski’s insurgency. Time and again, Boyle’s UMWA had proven itself more concerned with cozying up to mining companies than addressing the pressing needs of mine workers and the ever-present dangers to which their work exposed them. Boyle and his cronies, Yablonski said during his unsuccessful campaign to unseat the union president, “have sat on their backsides so long . . . they’ve let the fat come up between their ears and they don’t know what the coal miner’s problems are anymore.”

Coal miners’ problems, of course, were legion. As Bradley notes, injury rates among coal miners were four times higher than any other industrial job in the United States, yet the UMWA had only a one-man safety division, and consistently took a “thoughts and prayers” approach to mine explosions that left numerous mine workers and union members dead.

Following the Farmington, West Virginia, explosion of November 20, 1968, that trapped 99 miners in the Number 9 mine, killing 78 of them, Boyle rode a coal company helicopter to the explosion site and was quick to absolve the company of blame. “Boyle stunned many of those who had gathered to hear his expected words of sorrow and outrage by instead, in a flat, nasal voice, praising Consolidation Coal Company’s safety record and its history of cooperation with the union,” Bradley writes. “He reminded the families, as if they did not already know it, that coal mining was a very dangerous way to make a living. The public spectacle of the UMWA’s president defending the grossly negligent, if not outright criminal, actions of a coal company while seventy-eight of his coal miners lay entombed in its burning mine shocked many of the onlookers.”

Bradley brings a fascinating cast of characters into the story, among them UMWA founding president John L. Lewis, whom he portrays as a larger-than-life figure who “defied presidents, ignored judges, and excoriated coal operators for his miners while singlehandedly molding them into the most influential and feared labor union in American history.”

But even as Lewis built a well-earned reputation as a grassroots leader who never lost sight of the day-to-day challenges faced by the rank and file, he also established a self-sustaining cult of personality among the miners (with framed pictures of Lewis and Jesus typically hanging side by side in miners’ homes) that insulated him from challenges and paved the way for Boyle’s dictatorial regime. What’s more, Lewis’s “infamous bargain” with Big Coal on mechanization forced the migration of more than three million out-of-work miners from coal country to northern and midwestern cities during the two decades before the Yablonski murders, flooding new hillbilly ghettoes in Ohio cities with “SAMs” (Southern Appalachian Migrants).

Another intriguing figure in Blood Runs Coal is reform activist Ralph Nader, who plays a pivotal role in converting Yablonski from a mid-level UMWA lackey to the union’s most formidable, impassioned, charismatic, and articulate dissident.

Stalwart labor lawyer Joseph Rauh also plays an essential role, among other things, helping Yablonski develop a ten-point platform for mining and union reform that, Bradley writes, “Congressman Ken Hechler would soon trumpet as the coal miners’ Magna Carta.”

Bradley also paints a vivid and fairly appalling portrait of Boyle’s network of henchmen and the quartet of drunken, feckless killers who tried, failed, tried, failed, and ultimately succeeded in murdering the Yablonskis. And he also documents the tireless efforts of Yablonski’s sons and Miners for Democracy—a group of Yablonski-inspired miners formed shortly after the murders—to overturn the stolen election that kept Boyle in power, to lobby for black lung legislation, to deliver long-overdue reform to the union, and, at long last, to bring the killers and all conspirators in the crime to justice.

The success of those reforms (along with Boyle’s eventual conviction) saves Blood Runs Coal from being an entirely grim and gruesome tale. As Bradley writes, the Yablonski murders provided a wake-up call to miners of how thoroughly the UMWA leadership had betrayed them. The uprising that followed sent “shockwaves of conscience through the world of liberalism,” according to Association for Union Democracy co-founder H. W. Benson.

The UMWA coup also spawned a pivotal, if fleeting, pre-deindustrialization revitalization for unionized American workers across several industries. The revolt against Tony Boyle, Bradley argues, “led to the first successful rank-and-file takeover of a major labor union in modern United States history. Three years after the murders, Yablonski’s followers transformed the UMWA into the most democratically run union in the country. Their victory inspired workers in other labor unions, especially in the United Steel Workers of America and in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, to rise up and challenge their own entrenched, out-of-touch leaders.”