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

In December 1972, coal miners rocked the American labor motion by electing three reformers as prime officers of the United Mine Staff of America (UMWA), a union which on the time boasted 200,000 members and a tradition of office militancy with out peer.

In nationwide balloting supervised by the U.S. Division of Labor (DOL), Arnold Miller, Mike Trbovich and Harry Patrick ousted an previous guard slate headed by W.A. (“Tony”) Boyle, the benighted successor to John L. Lewis, who ran the UMWA in autocratic vogue for 40 years. Boyle’s opponents, who campaigned underneath the banner of Miners for Democracy (MFD), had by no means served on the nationwide union workers, govt board or any main bargaining committee. As an alternative, 50 years in the past they have been propelled into workplace by wildcat strike exercise and grassroots organizing round job security and well being points, together with calls for for higher compensation for black lung illness, which many underground miners.

Right now, at a time when labor militants are once more embracing a ​“rank-and-file strategy” to revitalize unions and alter their management, the MFD’s unprecedented victory — and its turbulent aftermath — stays related and instructive. Within the United Auto Staff (UAW), for instance, native union activists recently elected to nationwide workplace — and fellow reformers nonetheless contesting for headquarters positions in a runoff that begins January 12 — will face similar challenges overhauling an establishment weakened by corruption, cronyism and labor-management cooperation schemes. Some UAW members could doubt the necessity for sustaining the opposition caucus, Unite All Staff for Democracy (UAWD), that helped reformers get elected, however the MFD expertise exhibits that such political breakthroughs are simply step one in altering a dysfunctional nationwide union.

Think about what it was like for coal miners within the Nineteen Seventies to problem an much more corrupt and deeply entrenched union forms, with a historical past of violence and intimidation of dissidents. When Joseph (“Jock”) Yablonski, a Boyle critic on the UMWA govt board, tried to mount a reform marketing campaign for the UMWA presidency in 1969, the election was marked by systematic fraud later challenged on the DOL. Quickly after dropping, Yablonski was fatally shot by union gunmen, alongside together with his spouse and daughter, as Mark Bradley recounts in Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Staff of America.

Simply three years later, MFD candidates have been in a position to oust Boyle and his closest allies, however with out profitable management of the nationwide union govt board. As inspiring because it was on the time, this election victory ended up demonstrating the restrictions of reform campaigns for union workplace once they’re not accompanied by much more troublesome efforts to construct and maintain rank-and-file group. Of all of the opposition actions influenced by the MFD, within the Nineteen Seventies and afterwards, solely Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) has achieved persevering with success as a reform caucus, largely as a result of its concentrate on membership training, management growth and collective motion round office points.

Contested elections are uncommon

Then and now, contested elections wherein native union leaders — to not point out working members — problem nationwide union officers are very uncommon. Rising by way of the ranks in organized labor usually means ready your flip, and if you seize a management place, holding on to it for so long as you’ll be able to. Aspiring labor leaders most simply make the transition from native elected positions to appointed nationwide union workers jobs in the event that they conform politically.

Dissidents are typically handed over for such positions or not even thought-about until union patronage is being deployed by these on the prime to co-opt precise or potential critics. As appointed staffers transfer up by way of the accredited route, whether or not within the discipline or at union headquarters, they achieve broader organizational expertise by ​“working throughout the system” slightly than bucking it.

In the event that they turn out to be candidates for increased elective workplace later of their careers, they take pleasure in all the benefits of de facto incumbency (by advantage of their full-time positions, larger entry to a number of locals and politically useful headquarters patrons). Only some nationwide unions — together with the UMWA, Teamsters, the NewsGuild/​CWA, and now, with inspiring outcomes thus far, the UAW—allow all members to vote immediately on prime officers and govt board members.

Completely different path to the highest

On paper, coal miners lengthy had a ​“one-member, one-vote” system. However, by the late Nineteen Sixties, there had not been an actual contest for the UMWA presidency in 4 a long time. Missing the stature of his legendary predecessor John L. Lewis, a founding father of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, Tony Boyle had turn out to be a compliant software of the coal business, unwilling to battle for higher contracts or safer working situations. More and more restive miners staged two enormous wildcat work-stoppages protesting nationwide 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 security laws and a black lung advantages program for disabled miners in West Virginia.

Regardless of passage of the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act, which created a ​“invoice of rights” for union members, Boyle was in a position to keep inside management by placing disloyal native unions and full UMWA districts underneath trusteeship, which disadvantaged members of the proper to vote on their leaders. Jock Yablonski’s martyrdom set the stage for a rematch with Boyle. It took the type 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 usual bearers for reform in 1972 have been Yablonski supporters who created MFD as a proper opposition caucus a number of months after his loss of life. Additionally they revealed a rank-and-file newspaper known as The Miners Voice as an alternative choice to the Boyle-controlled UMW Journal.

At MFD’s first and solely conference, 400 miners adopted a 34-point union reform platform and nominated Arnold Miller from Cabin Creek, W.V. as their presidential candidate. Miller was a disabled miner, chief of the Black Lung Association and former soldier whose face was completely scarred by D-Day invasion accidents. His working mates included one other navy veteran, 41-year-old Harry Patrick, a voice for youthful miners, and Mike Trbovich, who helped coordinate Yablonski’s marketing campaign in Pennsylvania. Regardless of persevering with threats, intimidation, and heavy red-baiting all through the coalfields, the MFD slate ousted Boyle by a margin of 14,000 votes out of 126,700 forged in December 1972.

Propelled by militancy

The union institution was deeply shocked and unsettled by this electoral upset. Not a single main labor group (except the impartial United Electrical Staff) applauded the defeat of Boyle, an already convicted embezzler, who was later indicted and located responsible of ordering the assassination of Yablonski. The MFD victory and its tumultuous 10-year aftermath has been chronicled by such authors as former UMWA lawyer Tom Geoghegan in Which Aspect Are You On? Attempting to Be for Labor When It’s Flat on Its Again, labor research professor Paul Clark in The Miners Battle for Democracy: Arnold Miller and the Reform of the United Mine Staff, ladies’s research professor Barbara Ellen Smith in Digging Our Personal Graves: Coal Miners and the Wrestle of Black Lung Illness, and the late Paul Nyden, a Charleston Gazette reporter, in Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s, a group of case research concerning the interval’s labor insurgency.

As Nyden famous, the MFD’s grassroots marketing campaign ​“channeled the spontaneous militancy arising all through the Appalachian coal fields.” Earlier than and after their election, MFD candidates had key allies inside and outdoors the union. Among the many former, in response to Nyden, have been ​“wives and widows of disabled miners, wildcat strikers, and above all of the younger miners who have been dramatically reshaping the composition of the UMWA.” Among the many ​“outsiders” have been neighborhood organizers, coalfield researchers, former campus activists, investigative journalists, and public curiosity attorneys, a few of whom would later play influential roles as new nationwide union staffers.

The MFD inherited a deeply divided group, with inside and exterior issues that may have been daunting for any new leaders, not simply working members abruptly catapulted from the coalfields into unfamiliar union headquarters jobs. In Digging Our Personal Graves, Smith faults MFD leaders for deciding to ​“dismantle their very own rebel group” as a result of the ​“skeletal community of rank-and-file leaders” that was the MFD had ​“principally turn out to be the institutional union.”

“Many activists joined the union’s workers or grew to become preoccupied with working for workplace of their new autonomous districts,” she writes. ​“The choice to disband the MFD had severe penalties, nevertheless. It left the brand new administration with no coherent rank-and-file base and it left the rank-and-file with out an organized automobile to carry their new leaders accountable.”

The reformers elected in 1972 did reach democratizing the construction and functioning of the UMWA. Additionally they revitalized union departments coping with office security, organizing, membership training, inside communication, and strike help (see Harlan County USA, an Academy Award-winning documentary, about one early take a look at of the MFD’s dedication to combating again, slightly than promoting out).

Within the essential space of nationwide contract negotiations and enforcement, significantly heightened membership expectations have been more durable to fulfill. A 1974 settlement with the Bituminous Coal Operators Affiliation (BCOA) offered wage will increase of 37% over three years, a first-ever cost-of-living allowance, enhancements in pensions and sick pay, strengthened security rights and job safety safety. However the brand new management’s method to grievance process reform didn’t resolve the best level of stress between rank-and-file militants and people amongst them elevated to prime union workplace.

Within the mid-Nineteen Seventies, the underground miner custom of direct motion was nonetheless so robust that UMWA members repeatedly walked off the job over native disputes of all types. Their tradition of solidarity enabled roving pickets to shut-down mines close by, within the subsequent county, or an adjoining state, even when a special BCOA employer was focused and the conflicts concerned have been unrelated.

These wildcat strikes subjected the nationwide union to probably ruinous harm fits by coal operators searching for to implement a a lot ignored ​“no strike” clause, which required most grievances to be submitted to binding third-party arbitration. In 1974, new UMWA negotiators didn’t press for an open-ended grievance process that may have turned such fast strikes right into a extra disciplined and authorized software for contract enforcement. As an alternative, they agreed to the creation of an Arbitration Evaluation Board, which merely added one other irritating step to a dispute decision course of already back-logged and overly judicialized. As post-contract discontent mounted in 1975 and 1976, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 miners joined unauthorized strikes for the ​“right to strike,” whereas additionally protesting federal court docket sanctions (fines or imprisonment) of strikers who ignored back-to-work orders.

A counter revolution

Inside the union, the conservative Boyle forces continued to be an obstructionist drive in some UMWA districts. Annoyed by Arnold Miller’s shortcomings as a negotiator and administrator, probably the most promising MFD chief — Secretary-Treasurer Harry Patrick — mounted an unsuccessful problem to his fellow officer in a three-way race for the UMWA presidency in 1977.

Re-elected with a former Boyle supporter as his running-mate, Miller grew to become more and more weak, remoted and ineffective. His erratic dealing with of nationwide bargaining with the BCOA helped set the stage for a 111-day strike by 160,000 miners who needed to battle each the coal operators and their very own faltering management. Highlights of that 1977-78 battle included two contract rejections and a failed Taft-Hartley Act back-to-work order sought by President Jimmy Carter, a White Home intervention much more provocative than Joe Biden’s role in the present nationwide rail labor dispute.

UMWA contract concessions in 1978 and 1981 made organizing the unorganized more and more troublesome. Extra coal manufacturing shifted to the West, the place enormous floor mines required a lot smaller workforces, which normally remained ​“union free.” Within the meantime, the multi-employer BCOA started to fragment, leaving the UMWA with fewer and fewer corporations with which to barter an overarching nationwide contract. Even companies working within the jap coalfields began non-union associates or subsidiaries, in what was turning into a declining business.

Extra competent, progressive management was not restored till a second-generation reformer, Richard Trumka, took over as UMWA president in 1982. Trumka defeated Sam Church, who changed Miller when the latter retired, after a number of coronary heart assaults, in 1979. Trumka had gained worthwhile expertise within the UMWA authorized division through the mid-Nineteen Seventies. He had been a working miner earlier than going to regulation faculty after which returned to the mines in preparation for searching for union workplace. However even with steadier, extra expert fingers on the helm — and an inspiring strike victory on the Pittston Coal Firm in 1989 — the union entered a downward spiral of diminished membership and diminished organizational clout.

Lengthy earlier than Trumka’s ascendency, many of the college-educated non-miners, who have been swept into key positions by the MFD’s victory in 1972, had left UMWA employment. Some went to work for different unions, together with the Teamsters underneath the TDU-backed presidency of Ron Carey within the Nineties. In 1995, Trumka turn out to be secretary-treasurer of the nationwide AFL-CIO and, 14 years later, its president till his loss of life in 2021 at age 72. On the UMWA, he handed the reigns to his vice-president Cecil Roberts, who was a part of the era of recently-returned Vietnam veterans who received jobs within the mines and backed the MFD in 1972. Roberts serves on the AFL-CIO govt council and continues to rally UMWA members and their households in opposition to a resurgence of black lung illness as a result of coal and silica mud publicity amongst underground miners.

However, lately, the UMWA has been a lot preoccupied with the chapter of main coal producers, ensuing lay-offs, and associated political fights to guard the pensions and healthcare protection of retirees who now far outnumber working members. Since April 2021, greater than 1,000 Alabama members have been on strike in opposition to Warrior Met Coal, which is at the moment the union’s most high-profile contract battle. 4 years in the past, Roberts — now 76 years previous — was re-elected by acclamation to his sixth full time period as nationwide president. This makes him the second longest serving UMWA chief after John L. Lewis.

As fashionable UMWA historical past confirms, the street to rank-and-file energy contains many pot holes and various detours alongside the best way. If union members can create a sturdy opposition motion and successfully make the most of direct election of prime officers, even many a long time of institutional stagnation might be changed by uplifting intervals of organizational revitalization. However experiments in union democracy and reform all the time face bigger constraints, together with, as coal miners’ expertise demonstrates, downsizing and restructuring of the business which employs these searching for to problem and alter their very own labor management. Auto staff within the UAW have lengthy suffered from a much less extreme decline of their fundamental business however now have a uncommon and thrilling alternative to show a union reform victory right into a probably longer-lasting embrace of more practical organizing, bargaining and strike methods.

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