What Organizers Can Learn From a Rank-and-File Coal Miners’ Victory 50 Years Ago

In 1972, labor militants ousted corrupt and entrenched leadership at the mine workers’ union in an unprecedented win.By Steve Early , INTHESETIMES Published December 17, 2022

Coal Miners Protesting in 1975
Coal miners of the United Mine Workers of America demonstrate in the streets of Charleston, West Virginia, during a wildcat strike in support of the miners’ demand for the right to strike without the threat of court injunctions, on August 26th, 1975.BETTMANN / GETTY IMAGES

In December 1972, coal miners rocked the American labor movement by electing three reformers as top officers of the United Mine Workers of America (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.

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