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BACK in the "smokestack era", when industries needed armies of blue-collar workers, labor unions wielded great power. In those days, control of a union was important enough, in one famous case, to cause crooked leaders to commit murder.
West Virginia was embroiled in that vile affair a half-century ago. It triggered the heroic cleansing of the United Mine Workers, a historic reform crusade.
Meanwhile, an odd trio of West Virginia physicians--Dr. I.E. Buff of Charleston, Dr. Don Rasmussen of Beckley and Dr. Hawey Wells of Morgantown--declared that coal dust in mines causes a lethal disease: black lung. They gave fiery speeches at miner rallies. The colorful Dr. Buff waved a plastic bag containing a ruined lung. Other authorities denied their claim, saying such lung problems stem from cigarettes (which is partly true, since smoke paralyzes bronchial filaments that eject foreign particles like coal dust).
UMW leaders were silent about the issue. But Arnold Miller, a war-scarred miner from Cabin Creek, organized colleagues into the West Virginia Black Lung Association and demanded a state law for medical compensation. In early 1969, they drew 3,000 miners to a Charleston Civic Center rally. Reform crusader Ralph Nader sent a message saying "Tony Boyle has neglected his responsibility to protect coal miners." Rep. Hechler waved a large bologna as a comment on opposition claims.
(The protest included a coffin on wheels, which was left in the rotunda at the Capitol. One night, after too much partying, a news reporter climbed into the coffin, and another wheeled him around the hallways.) Determined to oust the corrupt Boyle leadership, Nader asked a Pennsylvania UMW leader, Joseph "Jock" Yablonski, to run for UMW president. A union history book later said Yablonski replied: "If I do run, Ralph, they'll try to murder me" but Nader insisted: "Oh, they wouldn't dare." Yablonski consented, with disabled miner Elmer Brown of Mingo County as a running-mate. Arnold Miller's group, calling itself Miners for Democracy, backed the Yablonski-Brown ticket fervently. A bitter campaign was waged.
In many West Virginia appearances, Yablonski accused the Boyle team of treachery and embezzlement of union funds. In Congress, Hechler hammered at Boyle's "tyranny". More than 50 West Virginia retired miners and widows joined a federal suit saying the Boyle administration had bilked them of union health benefits. Other court actions challenged the one-man rule, which filled state and local UMW posts with appointees, not elected officers.
During the campaign, Miller, Buff and a few other rebels sometimes told me they feared assassination by the Boyle camp. We news reporters smiled privately, thinking their alarm was overblown melodrama. We were wrong.
The union election was Dec. 9, 1969. Yablonski lost but refused to concede, and asked the U.S. Labor Department to investigate for vote fraud. Three weeks later, on New Year's Eve, killers went to his Pennsylvania home and shot him, his wife and their daughter, a graduate student at nearby West Virginia University.
The murders were like a dam-burst that washed away the corrupt UMW leadership. The fallout was relentless: Almost immediately, three petty criminals--two from West Virginia--were charged with the murders. They were caught because Yablonski and a friend had written down the license number of a car that came to the Pennsylvania home previously.
The West Virginians had long records of two-bit crime and drunkenness.
One had shot his wife, but wasn't prosecuted. Evidence emerged that they had stalked Yablonski for months, and once tried to shoot him while he was riding in a car with Hechler from Logan to Huntington, but the curvy road thwarted them. A statement said one of the West Virginians stank so bad that the other plotters could hardly bear to ride in a car with him.
The killers were convicted, then regional UMW officials were charged with paying them. Prosecutors relentlessly pushed the investigation up the ladder toward the masterminds.
Meanwhile, in early 1972, the retired miners and widows won their lawsuit, and the union was forced to restore $11.5 million to the health-and-retirement fund.
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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail. Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)