UMWA Slaying: 44 Years Later

Dec 20, 2013

Yablonski talking with miners.
Credit United Miner Workers of America

This New Year’s Eve marks the 44th anniversary of the murder of Union presidential candidate Joseph “Jock” Yablonski.

Earlier this month the trigger-man in the 1969 murder, Paul Gilly, petitioned the court asking to be released from prison.  But the union believes Gilly should stay behind bars.

Dark time in United Mine Workers of America history

Jock Yablonski, his wife and daughter were murdered December 31, 1969. It was just over a year after the Farmington Disaster, where an explosion killed 78 men, underground.

Paul Rakes is a former coal miner, and soldier. He now is an Associate Professor of History at West Virginia University Institute of Technology.

Rakes grew up in a coal mining community in Southern West Virginia.

“I grew up with injury and death and hearing about it and surrounded by coal mines on a regular basis...but Farmington was so vicious in the explosion itself," he said.

Outrage in the coalfields

The president of the United Mine Workers of America in 1968 was Tony Boyle. He visited the scene of the Farmington disaster shortly after the explosion. A fact based 1986 TV movie “Act of Vengeance” portrayed his remarks.

Boyle is quoted in the West Virginia encyclopedia saying, ‘‘As long as we mine coal, there is always this inherent danger. This happens to be one of the better companies, as far as cooperation with our union and safety is concerned.’’

“It was a trying time for our union if you read the history of it was a very trying time,” Mike Caputo,  International District 31 Vice President of the United Mine Workers .

Opposition against Boyle mounted in the coalfields. 

“Corruption was perceived whether it was real or whether it was just perceived I don’t know the answer to that," Caputo said, "but you know perception is reality sometimes and Jock Yablonski vowed to change all that.”

A new election

After Yablonski’s death, the federal government launched an investigation of the election and filed suit to have it overturned. In December 1972, the union voted former miner Arnold Miller as president.

Rakes was in his first year underground and looked to his respected father and old timers for guidance in deciding how to vote.

“I do know that all of them were convinced that Boyle had something to do with the death of Yablonski and you know that’s attacking a brother would be the way it’s was thought of," he said. "It’s a union brother you’re not going to attack them." 

Rakes voted for Miller. Tony Boyle along with gunman Paul Gilly and two others were convicted and sentenced to life in prison for Yablonski’s murder. Gilly remains behind bars in Pennsylvania.

A new era

“One thing that shouldn’t be forgotten is the sacrifice that was made by Yablonski himself as well as the 78 miners at Farmington because it changed everything," Rake said.

The Farmington disaster and Yablonski’s murder sparked initiatives to address problems in coal mine health and safety . The West Virginia legislature passed a black lung compensation law, and in 1969 Congress passed  the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act .

The law dramatically increased federal enforcement powers in coal mines, required fines for all violations, and established criminal penalties for knowing and willful violations among other things.

Today, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is governed by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, an amendment to the Coal Act.