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Miners for Democracy Encourage Unions

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In December 1972, coal miners rocked the American labor movement by electing three reformers as top officers of the Mine Workers (UMWA), a union which at the time boasted 200,000 members and a culture of workplace militancy without peer.

In national balloting supervised by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), Arnold Miller, Mike Trbovich and Harry Patrick ousted an old guard slate headed by W.A. (“Tony”) Boyle, the benighted successor to John L. Lewis, who ran the UMWA in autocratic fashion for 40 years.

Boyle’s opponents, who campaigned under the banner of Miners for Democracy (MFD), had never served on the national union staff, executive board or any major bargaining committee.

Instead, 50 years ago they were propelled into office by wildcat strike activity and grassroots organizing around job safety and health issues, including demands for better compensation for black lung disease, which afflicted many underground miners.

Today, at a time when labor militants are again embracing a “rank-and-file strategy” to revitalize unions and change their leadership, the MFD’s unprecedented victory—and its turbulent aftermath—remains relevant and instructive.

In the United Auto Workers (UAW), for example, local union activists recently elected to national office—and fellow reformers still contesting for headquarters positions in a runoff that begins January 12—will face similar challenges overhauling an institution weakened by corruption, cronyism and labor-management cooperation schemes.

Some UAW members may doubt the need for maintaining the opposition caucus, Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), that helped reformers get elected, but the MFD experience shows that such political breakthroughs are just the first step in changing a dysfunctional national union.

Imagine what it was like for coal miners in the 1970s to challenge an even more corrupt and deeply entrenched union bureaucracy, with a history of violence and intimidation of dissidents.

When Joseph (“Jock”) Yablonski, a Boyle critic on the UMWA executive board, tried to mount a reform campaign for the UMWA presidency in 1969, the election was marked by systematic fraud later challenged at the DOL. Soon after losing, Yablonski was fatally shot by union gunmen, along with his wife and daughter, as Mark Bradley recounts in Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Workers of America.

Just three years later, MFD candidates were able to oust Boyle and his closest allies, but without winning control of the national union executive board. As inspiring as it was at the time, this election victory ended up demonstrating the limitations of reform campaigns for union office when they’re not accompanied by even more difficult efforts to build and sustain rank-and-file organization.

Of all the opposition movements influenced by the MFD, in the 1970s and afterwards, only Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) has achieved continuing success as a reform caucus, largely due to its focus on membership education, leadership development and collective action around workplace issues.

Contested Elections Are Rare

Then and now, contested elections in which local union leaders – not to mention working members — challenge national union officials are very rare. Rising through the ranks in organized labor generally means waiting your turn, and when you capture a leadership position, holding on to it for as long as you can.

Aspiring labor leaders most easily make the transition from local elected positions to appointed national union staff jobs if they conform politically.

Dissidents tend to be passed over for such positions or not even considered unless union patronage is being deployed by those at the top to co-opt actual or potential critics. As appointed staffers move up via the approved route, whether in the field or at union headquarters, they gain broader organizational experience by “working within the system” rather than bucking it.

If they become candidates for higher elective office later in their careers, they enjoy all the advantages of de facto incumbency (by virtue of their full-time positions, greater access to multiple locals and politically helpful headquarters patrons).

Only a few national unions—including the UMWA, Teamsters, the NewsGuild / CWA, and now, with inspiring results so far, the UAW–permit all members to vote directly on top officers and executive board members.

Different Route to the Top

On paper, coal miners long had a “one-member, one-vote” system. But, by the late 1960s, there had not been a real contest for the UMWA presidency in four decades. Lacking the stature of his legendary predecessor John L. Lewis, a founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, Tony Boyle had become a compliant tool of the coal industry, unwilling to fight for better contracts or safer working conditions.

Increasingly restive miners staged two huge wildcat work-stoppages protesting national agreements negotiated in secret by Boyle (with no membership ratification). In 1969, 45,000 UMWA members joined an unauthorized strike demanding passage of stronger federal mine safety legislation and a black lung benefits program for disabled miners in West Virginia.

Despite passage of the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act, which created a “bill of rights” for union members, Boyle was able to maintain internal control by putting disloyal local unions and entire UMWA districts under trusteeship, which deprived members of the right to vote on their leaders.

Jock Yablonski’s martyrdom set the stage for a rematch with Boyle. It took the form of a government-run election, ordered after a multi-year DOL investigation of violence, intimidation, vote-tampering and misuse of union funds by Boyle’s political machine.

The standard bearers for reform in 1972 were Yablonski supporters who created MFD as a formal opposition caucus a few months after his death. They also published a rank-and-file newspaper called The Miners Voice as an alternative to the Boyle-controlled UMW Journal.

At MFD’s first and only convention, 400 miners adopted a 34-point union reform platform and nominated Arnold Miller from Cabin Creek, West Virginia, as their presidential candidate. Miller was a disabled miner, leader of the Black Lung Association and former soldier whose face was permanently scarred by D-Day invasion injuries.

His running mates included another military veteran, 41-year-old Harry Patrick, a voice for younger miners, and Mike Trbovich, who helped coordinate Yablonski’s campaign in Pennsylvania.

Despite continuing threats, intimidation, and heavy red-baiting throughout the coalfields, the MFD slate ousted Boyle by a margin of 14,000 votes out of 126,700 cast in December 1972.

This partial blog appeared in full at Labor Notes on January 6, 2023 after it was originally published by In These Times. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Steve Early worked for 27 years as an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of America. He is the author of several books.


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