The Yablonski Legacy

Act of Vengeance by Trevor Armbrister E.P. Dutton and Co., 340 pp., $10.95

IN THE EARLY MORNING hours of December 31, 1969, a blue 1966 Chevrolet with Ohio plates pulled up beside Joseph A. (Jock) Yablonski's Clarksville, Pennsylvania, home. Three men got out and entered the house. The three went silently to the third floor bedrooms where they shot and killed Yablonski, his wife Margaret, and his daughter Charlotte as they slept. The bodies lay there until January 5, when they were discovered by Yablonski's son Kenneth.

Earlier that year, Yablonski had become the first United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) official in over 40 years to challenge the entrenched leadership of the union. He had lost the December, 1969 election decisively, by 33,000 votes. That election was later overturned by U.S. District Court Judge William B. Bryant on grounds of "massive vote fraud and financial manipulation." In the 1972 election, reform candidate Arnold Miller easily swamped incumbent W.A. (Tony) Boyle by 14,000 votes. Boyle was subsequently convicted of embezzling union money, illegally contributing union funds to the 1968 Humphrey presidential campaign, but most seriously, of ordering the murders of Margaret, Charlotte and Jock Yablonski, Boyle's nine-year reign was over.

Coal mining is a rough, dirty business, the most hazardous industry in America. Correspondingly, the UMWA is a rough union. Often its leaders are tough, two-fisted men, up from the rank-and-file. The legendary John L. Lewis, founder of the CIO and UMWA president for 40 years, was a formidable adversary in any contract negotiation, and he was scared of nothing. When the UMWA struck in 1942, Franklin Roosevelt threatened to bring troops in to mine the coal. Lewis, who had split with CIO president and one-time close associate Philip Murray in 1940 over Roosevelt's third-term bid, said in his gravelly voice, "Let them dig coal with bayonets."

The UMWA at that time negotiated its contracts with three principal groups of coal operators: the Northern Coal Operators Association, the Southern Coal Producers Association, and the so-called "captive" mines, or mines owned by steel companies which did ordinarily sell coal on the open market. Then, in 1950, the Northern operators combined with the captive producers to form the Bituminous Coal Operators Association. Post-war strikes in 1947 and 1948 had left the coal industry vulnerable, unable to compete with oil and natural gas. So, in return for not opposing the mechanization that would make coal competitive, though it would throw almost 500,000 men out of work, Lewis extracted a royalty of a nickel on each ton of coal from the producers. With this nickel royalty, he founded the UMWA Welfare and Retirement Fund. The Fund is now worth over $400 million, but in effect Lewis had tied the union to the royalty. The UMWA had a vested interest in maintaining a high level of production.

IN 1963, WHEN Tony Boyle took over the UMWA's presidency, the union and the operators were quite cozy with each other, and Boyle was determined to keep it that way. Jock Yablonski was an International Executive Board member from the UMWA's District 5 in southwest Pennsylvania. At one time, he hoped to succeed Boyle as president of the union, but their relationship steadily worsened. Boyle accused Yablonski of not helping his 1964 campaign for re-election to the presidency, although Boyle took District 5 by a four-to-one margin. He charged Yablonski with insubordination because Yablonski had fought in the Pennsylvania legislature for the passage of a law compensating miners stricken with "black lung." Boyle thought the time was not right for the passage of such an act. He set out to stifle Yablonski by making him director of Labor's Nonpartisan League, the union's feeble political arm. Yablonski decided to challenge Boyle in the 1969 election. This decision led to his murder.

Yablonski tried to enlist the help of Ralph Nader. Nader quizzed Yablonski extensively about his plans for the union, and seemed enthusiastic about helping. But the plans fell through. Yablonski needed the support of 50 local unions to get on the December ballot, which he expected to get from his southern Pennsylvania power base of 68 locals. He would end up with 98 endorsements. Nader wanted him to campaign more during the summer of 1969, something Yablonski felt he couldn't do. He thought if he spent too much time away from his job, Boyle would fire him. At any rate, Nader, in Yablonski's words, "never did deliver." Speaking in Springfield, Illinois, Yablonski was attacked by an unknown assailant. Knocked unconscious, Yablonski thought he was paralyzed. Now he knew that he was playing for keeps.

Boyle stripped Yablonski of his position as head of the League. When Yablonski tried to fight his removal in the International Elective Board's meeting, he found himself out-voted, 21-1. Later, Boyle met with Albert Pass, secretary-treasurer of District 19 in east Tennessee and Kentucky.

"We're in a fight," he told Pass. "Yablonski ought to be killed or done away with." Pass, whose district had been the site of much violence, agreed. He came up with a plan to hire Yablonski's murders. It involved the transfer of $20,000 of union money to Pass in District 19 for the use of a non-existent "Research and Information" committee. The money was transferred to 23 retired miners, who cashed the checks and kicked the money back to Pass. Through a District 19 field agent named Bill Prater, he contacted another retired miner, Silous Huddleston. Huddleston enlisted his son-in-law, Paul Gilly, who rounded up the other members of the murder crew.

Pass could not have picked a more inept crew of murderers. Gilly, Huddleston's son-in-law, had a third grade education. A Cleveland, Ohio house painter, he also ran a low-life restaurant which was a gathering place for burglars trying to fence stolen goods. It was from among these burglars he recruited the killers. Apparently the cash involved was not important; he thought if he killed Yablonski, his wife Annette would love him more.

Described as "clowns" by Cleveland police commissioner Clifford Bruce, neither Claude Vealey or Buddy Martin had finished junior high school. They both had long arrest records--during the three-month period in which they planned to kill Yablonski, they were both involved in numerous burglaries. Both were alcoholics.

On Thanksgiving Day, 1969, Boyle asked his secretary to call Pass about a meeting. Pass asked her if she wanted to know the final vote in District 19, though the election was still two weeks away. "It's going to be 3723 votes for Mr. Boyle and 87 for Joe Yablonski," he said. And that's how it turned out.

Throughout the campaign Yablonski and his attorney, Joe Rauh, tried to involve Secretary of Labor George Schultz and other Labor Department officials in monitoring the election. They refused, saying it was outside their jurisdiction until the election was over. Rauh filed an $18 million suit in Washington, D.C., in order to illuminate Boyle's shady campaign practices. By the time the suit came to trial, it would be too late.

THE ENTRY OF THE FBI and their work with Philadelphia prosecutor Richard Sprague forms the basis of Trevor Armbrister's book, Act of Vengeance. Sprague took the bureau's solid investigative work to win convictions up the chain of command, and finally nailed Boyle.

Boyle is an enigmatic, almost Nixon-esque figure. Though no physical specimen like his strapping mentor Lewis, he tried to adopt Lewis's hearty ways and flamboyant speech. He wasn't in touch with the miners; when Farmington No. 9 mine exploded in 1968 in Farmington, West Virginia, killing 78 men, Boyle wouldn't meet with the widows. "What should I say to them?" he asked his aides. As the web of justice slowly tightened around him, he became irascible--he blamed his troubles on "outsiders," "hippies," and "communists." Later, he tried to take his life.

Boyle is now serving three consecutive life terms for first degree murder, and indeed, all the principals of the Yablonski case are now behind bars. In 1972, the Miners For Democracy (MFD) slate of Arnold Miller, Mike Trbovich, and Harry Patrick assumed office, and attempted to give the UMWA back to its membership. They sold the union's Cadillacs, are attempting to sell the union's Washington, D.C. bank, and have made plans to move headquarters to the coalfields from Washington. Chip Yablonski, the murdered leader's son, became union counsel. And the union's safety division now has over 50 men, as opposed to three during Boyle's reign.

However, the union is not as healthy as it seemed in 1972. Chip Yablonski has left the UMWA for private practice without giving any reasons. Miller, though he won a sizeable increase in wages and benefits in 1974, may not be able to hold the rank-and-file in line, if the August, 1975 wildcat strike is any indication. The May, 1976 West Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary threatens to split the union's political power. Miller has a wellknown affection for Jay Rockefeller, an affection the membership does not appear to share, as they buried Rockefeller in his first race for governor in 1972. Harry Trbovich, who was outmaneuvered for the presidency in 1972 by Miller, may be pressured to run for the top post in 1977, though Miller says he will run again.

The future of the UMWA is very much up in the air. Coal prices have doubled and tripled in the past few years, but the union seems largely unable to translate those gains into tangible benefits for its members. Just last week, in District 19 and Harlan County, Kentucky, the Scotia Coal Company's Black Mountain mine exploded, killing 15 men. James Sturgill, one of those who was killed, once said, "If you thought about the dangers, it would drive you out of your mind. I don't think about it. You've got to die some time."

But Miller has reversed the trend started by Lewis. The UMWA membership will no longer tolerate the trading of safety measures for increased benefits. In the four years of Miller's administration fatalities have been cut almost in half--from 236 a year in Boyle's reign to 132 in Miller's first year. Clearly, as Yablonski once said, with new leadership, the UMWA is once again leading, instead of being led.