Joseph Yablonski

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Joseph Albert Yablonski
Born(1910-03-23)March 23, 1910
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
DiedDecember 31, 1969(1969-12-31) (aged 59)
Clarksville, Pennsylvania
OccupationCoal miner; Labor leader
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Joseph Albert Yablonski
Born(1910-03-23)March 23, 1910
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
DiedDecember 31, 1969(1969-12-31) (aged 59)
Clarksville, Pennsylvania
OccupationCoal miner; Labor leader

Joseph Albert "Jock" Yablonski (March 3, 1910 – December 31, 1969) was an American labor leader in the United Mine Workers in the 1950s and 1960s. He was murdered in 1969 by killers hired by a union political opponent, Mine Workers president W. A. Boyle. His death led to significant reforms in the union.


Early life and union career

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1910, the son of Polish immigrants,[1] Yablonski began working in the mines as a boy. He became active in the United Mine Workers after his father was killed in a mine explosion. He was first elected to union office in 1934. In 1940, he was elected as a representative to the international executive board, and in 1958 was appointed president of UMW District 5.[2]

He clashed with W. A. "Tony" Boyle, who became president of the UMW in 1963, over how the union should be run and his view that Boyle did not adequately represent the miners. In 1965, Boyle removed Yablonski as president of District 5 (under reforms enacted by Boyle, district presidents were appointed, not elected). In May 1969, Yablonski announced his candidacy for president of the union. As early as June, Boyle was discussing the need to kill him.[2]

UMWA presidential candidacy

The United Mine Workers was in turmoil by 1969. Legendary UMWA president John L. Lewis had retired in 1960. His successor, Thomas Kennedy, died in 1963. From retirement, Lewis hand-picked Boyle for the UMWA presidency. A Montana miner, Boyle was as autocratic and bullying as Lewis, but not as well liked.[3][4]

From the beginning of his administration, Boyle faced significant opposition from rank-and-file miners and UMWA leaders. Miners' attitudes about their union had also changed. Miners wanted greater democracy and more autonomy for their local unions. There was also a widespread belief that Boyle was more concerned with protecting mine owners' interests than those of his members. Grievances filed by the union often took months—sometimes years—to resolve, lending credence to the critics' claim. Wildcat strikes occurred as local unions, despairing of UMWA assistance, sought to resolve local disputes with walkouts.[3][4][5]

In 1969, Yablonski challenged Boyle for the presidency of UMWA.[4] In an election widely seen as corrupt, Boyle beat Yablonski in the election held on December 9 by a margin of nearly two-to-one (80,577 to 46,073).[2] Yablonski conceded the election, but on December 18, 1969, asked the United States Department of Labor (DOL) to investigate the election for fraud. He also initiated five lawsuits against UMWA in federal court.[6][7]


On December 31, 1969, three hitmen shot Yablonski, his wife Margaret, and his 25-year-old daughter Charlotte, as they slept in the Yablonski home in Clarksville, Pennsylvania. The bodies were discovered on January 5, 1970, by Yablonski's son, Kenneth. The killings had been ordered by Boyle, who had demanded Yablonski's death on June 23, 1969, after a meeting with Yablonski at UMWA headquarters degenerated into a screaming match. In September 1969, UMWA executive council member Albert Pass received $20,000 from Boyle (who had embezzled the money from union funds) to hire gunmen to kill Yablonski. Paul Gilly, an out-of-work house painter and son-in-law of a minor UMWA official, and two drifters, Aubran Martin and Claude Vealey, agreed to do the job. The murder was postponed until after the election, however, to avoid suspicion falling on Boyle. After three aborted attempts to murder Yablonski, the killers did their job. But they left so many fingerprints behind, it took police only three days to catch them.[2][3][8]

A few hours after Yablonski's funeral, several of the miners who had supported Yablonski met in the basement of the church where the memorial service was held. They met with attorney Joseph Rauh and drew up plans to establish a reform caucus within the United Mine Workers.[9]

The day after the bodies of the Yablonskis were discovered, 20,000 miners in West Virginia walked off the job in a one-day strike, convinced Boyle was responsible for the murders.[10]

Aftermath of Yablonski's murder

Yablonski's murder sparked action. On January 8, 1970, Yablonski's attorney waived the right to further internal review and requested an immediate investigation of the 1969 union presidential election by DOL. On January 17, 1972, the United States Supreme Court granted Mike Trbovich, a 51-year-old coal mine shuttle car operator and union member from District 5 (Yablonski's district), permission to intervene in the DOL suit as a complainant—keeping the election fraud suit alive. After the Yablonski murder, Labor Secretary George P. Shultz assigned 230 investigators to the UMWA investigation.[3][8][11]

The Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) of 1959 regulates the internal affairs of labor unions, requiring regular secret-ballot elections for local union offices and providing for federal investigation of election fraud or impropriety. DOL is authorized under the act to sue in federal court to have the election overturned. By 1970, however, only three international union elections had been overturned by the courts.[12]

Gilly, Martin and Vealey were arrested days after the assassinations and indicted for Yablonski's death. Eventually, investigators arrested Pass and Pass' wife. All were convicted of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Two of the three assassins were sentenced to death; Martin avoided execution by pleading guilty and turning state's evidence.[13]

Miners for Democracy (MFD) formed in April 1970 while the DOL investigation continued. Its members included most of the miners who belonged to the West Virginia Black Lung Association and many of Yablonski's supporters and former campaign staff. MFD's support was strongest in southwestern Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and the panhandle and northern portions of West Virginia, but MFD supporters existed in nearly all affiliates. The chief organizers of Miners for Democracy included Yablonski's sons, Joseph (known as "Chip") and Ken, Trbovich and others.[14][3][15]

DOL filed suit in federal court in 1971 to overturn the 1969 UMWA election. After several lengthy delays, the suit moved went to trial on September 12, 1971. On May 1, 1972, Judge William Bryant threw out the results of the 1969 UMWA international union elections. Bryant scheduled a new election to be held during the first eight days of December 1972. In addition, Bryant agreed that DOL should oversee the election to ensure fairness.[16][17]

On May 28, 1972, MFD nominated Arnold Miller, a miner from West Virginia who had challenged Boyle on the need for black lung legislation, as its presidential candidate.[3][18]

Balloting for the next UMWA president began on December 1, 1972. Balloting ended on December 9, and Miller was declared the victor on December 15. The Labor Department certified Miller as UMWA's next president on December 22, 1972. The vote was 70,373 for Miller and 56,334 for Boyle.[3][19]

Two of the convicted murderers accused Boyle of masterminding and funding the assassination plot. Boyle was indicted on three counts of murder in April 1973 and convicted in April 1974. He was sentenced to three consecutive life terms in prison. He died in prison in 1985.[20]

Portrayal in popular culture

Barbara Kopple's 1976 documentary, Harlan County USA, included a segment on Yablonski's murder and its aftermath. It also includes the song "Cold Blooded Murder" (also known as "The Yablonski Murder"), sung by Hazel Dickens, about the murder.

The murders were also portrayed in a 1986 HBO television movie, Act of Vengeance. Charles Bronson (himself a native of Ehrenfeld, in the western Pennsylvania mining region) portrayed Yablonski and Wilford Brimley played Boyle.[21][22]

It was portrayed in the 1980s' TV series Tales of The FBI.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Richard Jensen, "Yablonski, Joseph A 'Jock,'" in Encyclopedia of United States labor and working-class history (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2007), 1:1555-6.
  2. ^ a b c d "Yablonski of U.M.W. Slain With Wife and Daughter," New York Times, January 6, 1970.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Lewis, Murder By Contract: The People v. 'Tough Tony' Boyle, 1975.
  4. ^ a b c Franklin, "Rank and File Rebellion Stirs in Mine Union, Posing Threat to Lewis Legacy," New York Times, June 13, 1969.
  5. ^ Lockard, Coal: A Memoir and Critique, 1998.
  6. ^ The suits alleged that Boyle and UMWA had denied him use of the union's mailing lists as provided for by law, that he had been removed from his position as acting director of Labor's Non-Partisan League in retaliation for his candidacy, that the UMW Journal was being used by Boyle as a campaign and propaganda mouthpiece, that UMWA had no rules for fair elections, that UMWA had printed nearly 51,000 excess ballots which should have been destroyed, and that UMWA had violated its fiduciary duties by spending union funds on Boyle's reelection. These charges and their resolution are outlined in Kenneth J. Yablonski and Joseph A. Yablonski v. United Mine Workers of America et al., 466 F.2d 424 (August 3, 1972).
  7. ^ Franklin, "Boyle Claims Victory In Mine Union Race," New York Times, December 11, 1969; "Loser Asks Inquiry Into Mine Election," Associated Press, December 12, 1969; Franklin, "Mine Union Change Likely After Vote," New York Times, December 14, 1969.
  8. ^ a b "The Yablonski Contract," Time, May 15, 1972; "The Fall of Tony Boyle," Time, September 17, 1973.
  9. ^ Peterson, "The Tragedy of the Miners," Washington Post, January 16, 1977.
  10. ^ Franklin, "More Miners Protest Slayings," New York Times, January 8, 1970.
  11. ^ "Mitchell Orders F.B.I. to Join Inquiry Into Yablonski Slayings," New York Times, January 7, 1970; Franklin, "Inquiry Is Ordered Into Mine Election," New York Times, January 9, 1970.
  12. ^ "Vindication for Jock Yablonski," Time, March 16, 1970.
  13. ^ Franklin, "3 Held in Yablonski Deaths," New York Times, January 22, 1970; Flint, "Murder Charges Filed," New York Times, January 23, 1970; "Yablonski Friends Say Suspect Visited Slain Man's Home Before Killing," New York Times, January 23, 1970; Franklin, "Yablonski Inquiry Reported to Focus On a Sum of Money," New York Times, January 24, 1970; "Grand Jury Is Checking Financial Records of a U.M.W. Local in Tennessee," United Press International, February 4, 1970; Franklin, "Wife of Suspect in Yablonski Case Is Indicted by U.S. Jury as Member of Plot to Kill Union Rebel," New York Times, February 6, 1970; "Yablonski Defendant Sentenced To Death for Three Murders," New York Times, November 14, 1971; "Mystery Lingers in Yablonski Case," New York Times, March 5, 1972; "Yablonski Defendant Pleads Guilty to Escape Chair," New York Times, April 12, 1972; Franklin, "Confession Given in Yablonski Case," New York Times, May 4, 1972; "Pass Guilty in Yablonski Deaths," New York Times, June 20, 1973.
  14. ^ "Oral History Interview With Dr. Donald Rasmussen," March 1, 2004.
  15. ^ Franklin, "U.S. Action Urged By U.M.W. Faction," New York Times, October 4, 1970; Franklin, "Dissident Miners Seek Funds Here," New York Times, November 15, 1970.
  16. ^ The details of the investigation and suit may be found in Hodgson v. United Mine Workers of America, 344 F. Supp. 17 (May 1, 1972).
  17. ^ Franklin, "U.M.W.'s Spending Detailed in Suit," New York Times, January 24, 1971; Franklin, "U.S. Again Delays Mine Union Trial," New York Times, May 30, 1971; Franklin, "U.M.W. Head Faces Suit on Election," New York Times, September 12, 1971; Vasquez, "U.M.W. Election of Boyle Is Upset by Federal Judge," New York Times, May 2, 1972.
  18. ^ Franklin, "Reform Miners Select Candidate to Run Against Boyle," New York Times, May 29, 1972; Franklin, "Angry U.M.W. Insurgent Arnold Ray Miller," New York Times, May 30, 1972.
  19. ^ Vasquez, "Overseer Named for U.M.W. Voting," New York Times, June 21, 1972; Vecsey, "Mine Workers Begin Balloting," New York Times, December 2, 1972; Franklin, "Boyle Is Ousted By Miners' Votes After Long Fight," New York Times, December 16, 1972; Franklin, "Officials Certify Miners' Election," New York Times, December 21, 1972.
  20. ^ Franklin, "Boyle Is Accused In Yablonski Case," New York Times, March 10, 1973; Franklin, "Boyle Is Implicated By Yablonski Killer," New York Times, March 14, 1973; Franklin, "Jury Finds Boyle Guilty In 3 Yablonski Murders," New York Times, April 12, 1974; "Boyle Is Given Three Life Terms In '69 Murder of the Yablonskis," Associated Press, September 12, 1975.
  21. ^ "News of the Screen," New York Times, September 16, 1973; Schenider, "This Time Around, Bronson Portrays the Victim," New York Times, April 20, 1986.
  22. ^ Act of Vengeance at the Internet Movie Database


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