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Mark Bradley on Blood Runs Coal The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the UMWA

In the early hours of New Year’s Eve 1969, in Clarksville, Pennsylvania, longtime trade union insider Joseph “Jock” Yablonski and his wife Margaret and 25 year old daughter Charlotte were brutally murdered in their old stone farmhouse. 

Seven months earlier, Yablonski had announced his campaign to oust the corrupt president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), Tony Boyle, who had long embezzled UMWA funds, silenced intra-union dissent, and served the interests of big coal companies. 

Yablonski wanted to return the union to the coal miners it was supposed to represent and restore the organization to what it had once been, a force for social good. Boyle was enraged about his opponent’s bid to take over – and would go to any lengths to maintain power.

The story is told by Mark Bradley in a new book – Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Workers of America.

How did you come to write this book?

“My first book came out in 2014. It was called – A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy and Cold Warrior,” Bradley told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “Duncan Lee was a member of the Lee family in Virginia. And he spied for the Soviet Union during World War II. We were never able to catch him.”

“I was up at the Library of Congress checking on some footnotes for that first book, doing some fact checking. I was sitting there waiting for some boxes to come back and I was reading through the Library of Congress’ manuscript collections and I noticed they had just gotten in something called The Joseph Yablonski Legal Case Collection.” 

“I was born in 1956. Anybody who grew up in the 1960s as I did knew that it was a decade marred by assassinations. I was thirteen at the time and I remember the killings. It was the last bloody exclamation point of a decade where political figures were assassinated. I made a mental note to myself that that collection existed.”

“Once I was done with the first book, I went back up and had a look at it. There were 26 boxes. They had not been opened by any other researchers. And they contained the government’s investigations of the murders and the prosecution.” 

“On November 20, 1968, there was an explosion in a mine up near Fairmont, West Virginia that killed 78 union miners. And the president of the UMWA, Tony Boyle, appeared on the scene in a company helicopter. He stood in front of the smoking portals of the mine and praised the company’s safety record while his union members laid dead and trapped in the mine.”

“That enraged a number of people including Ralph Nader. Nader came to fame for exposing the ill fated Corvair. He had turned his attention to, among other things, black lung and mine safety. He realized that it was pointless to try and get new safety legislation through Congress if it was going to be handed off to a union that wasn’t interested in enforcing it.” 

“He became interested in finding someone who could replace Tony Boyle. The union was made up of 23 districts at that time. Joseph Jock Yablonski was the President of District 5, a very powerful district in southwestern Pennsylvania. He had been on the executive board of the union for decades. He was an important figure in the union.”

“Yablonski had long believed that Boyle was running the union into the ground with his corruption, neglect of safety, neglect of benefits, neglect of pensions. After nine meetings, Nader convinced Yablonski to challenge Boyle in the 1969 UMWA election.”

“It was a very tough decision for Yablonski. And he tells Nader at the first meeting – he said – Ralph, you don’t understand what you are asking me. I’m more than likely going to be killed if I go through with this.”

“Yablonski goes ahead anyway.”

“On May 29, 1969, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., Yablonksi announced that he was going to run. From the get go, his life was threatened. Within a month, Boyle convened a board meeting. It was June 22, 1969.” 

“There were bitter words exchanged between him and Yablonski at the meeting.”

“After the meeting was over, Boyle went out into the hallway, summoned two of his lieutenants from District 19, which was the southeastern Kentucky and Tennessee area. And Boyle ordered them to oversee Yablonski’s execution.”

“They were able, through others within the union, to hire three small time burglars who agreed to take on the murder. It took them eight attempts to do it. And they finally cornered Yablonski in his house in Clarksville, Pennsylvania on December 31, 1969 and murdered him, his daughter and his wife.”

You write this: “The United States Senate’s Labor Subcommittee summoned Boyle to testify. His crude and hot-tempered remarks shocked the committee’s members: he branded Hechler and Nader ‘false prophets,’ and he threatened to shove a bologna down the West Virginia congressman’s throat. He challenged Nader to a fistfight in an alley and belittled him afterwards as a ‘camel rider from Lebanon.’”

Boyle was lashing out at his enemies. But why the hit on Yablonski?

“Yablonski was part of the inner circle. That board was known for their loyalty. John Lewis had been president since the 1920s. He stepped down in 1960.” 

“In Boyle’s mind, Yablonski committed treason. You don’t step out of line. You don’t question the leader. It’s a shocking thing to think about.” 

How was the assassination committed?

“The assassination was committed on New Year’s Eve 1969 in the early morning hours. Three killers were watching the house from an overlook behind the house. They watched the lights go out. They waited for another hour after the lights went out. They were drinking Iron City beer and some Seagram’s Scotch, getting themselves worked up.”

“One of the killers had broken into the house a couple months before on Halloween. And so they knew the layout. Christmas cards were in the window. The wreath was still up. The Christmas tree was still up. They unscrew one of the side screen doors with a screwdriver. They slip inside the house. They take their shoes off. They are not wearing masks. They do have gloves. They are carrying a .38 pistol and an M-1 carbine rifle.” 

“Up on the second landing, there are three bedrooms. The one at the top of the stairs is empty. You turn right, there are two more bedrooms, one on the left and one on the right. One of the killers goes into Charlotte’s bedroom. She is asleep. She is 25 years old.  She is the daughter. She is home and waiting for a call from Washington hoping to start a new job in DC.” 

“Her door is closed. One of the killers –- Buddy Martin – goes in. She is asleep with curlers in her hair. Martin puts a pistol about six inches away from her head and pulls the trigger twice. Shoots her right in the head.”

“That wakes up the parents. Margaret Yablonski sits up in bed and starts screaming. Yablonski has two guns in the room. He has a shotgun on the radiator right across from the bed. And he has a .22 rifle in the corner. The problem is both of them are unloaded. He has shotgun shells under the bed.” 

“When Margaret begins to scream, Claude Vealey raises the carbine and squeezes what he thinks is the trigger. Instead, he hits the button on the rifle that ejects the clip. The clip falls off the rifle.” 

“When the clip hits the floor, Paul Gilly grabs the rifle away from Vealey, shoves the clip back in the rifle and takes a shot at Margaret. He hits her in the shoulder. It’s not a fatal wound. It’s a pass through wound. It goes through. When Martin hears the shots, he starts coming to the bedroom where Jock and Margaret are. By that time, Yablonski has gotten out of bed and he’s groping for the shotgun, trying to load it to be able to defend himself and his family.” 

“Martin comes in and empties four shots from the .38 – two into Charlotte, killing her instantly and badly wounding Jock, who is now down on his knees. Claude Vealey grabs the gun away from Martin, shoves in more bullets and fires the rest into Yablonski. All in all, there were eleven shots fired, nine of which hit the victims.”

“The killers then steal some coins and things to make it look like a robbery gone bad instead of an assassination. They go back downstairs and put on their shoes. They head back to Cleveland where they are from. Along the way, they throw out their gloves, they throw the guns into the Monongahela River and speed back to Cleveland.”

Eventually, Martin, Gilly, Vealey and Boyle were convcited of murder. Boyle died in prison in 1985.

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Mark Bradley, see 35 Corporate Crime Reporter 1(11), Monday January 4, 2021, print edition only.]

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