PITTSBURGH, Penn. – One of the legal champions of the rank-and-file fight to reform the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) was attorney Kenneth Yablonski, 68, who died Sept. 8 in Washington County, Pa. This reform movement had an impact on the labor movement that can be seen even in today’s leadership of the AFL-CIO.
In a precedent setting case in the early 1960s, Mr. Yablonski defeated US Steel, winning benefits beyond worker’s compensation for families of 37 coal miners killed in a explosion at the corporation’s Robena, Pa., mine.
By 1969, rank-and-file members of the UMWA charged their leadership with “being in bed with the coal operators” and launched the Miners for Democracy (MFD). Among the leaders of the movement was Mr. Yablonski’s father, Joseph “Jock” Yablonski, a coal miner, and then full time UMWA staff representative, who led the election ticket challenging the Boyle leadership.
The effort failed. Boyle was re-elected. Joseph Yablonski, his wife and daughter were murdered in their Clarksville, Pa. home. Three paid assassins and Boyle were convicted in the slayings.
Mr. Yablonski and his brother, Joseph “Chip” Yablonski, re-doubled their efforts and in the early ’70s miners finally cleaned out their union leadership, electing Arnold Miller followed by Richard Trumka to lead their union.
The Yablonski brothers won the right of miners to elect their district leadership, other reforms and protections from abuse that today may seem routine.
Continuing to represent miners in court, Mr. Yablonski defeated coal company objections to Black Lung Benefits, winning medical and financial benefits for miners and their families.
To bring health care to mining families in rural and remote areas of Pa., the UMWA founded the Centerville Clinic in 1955. Mr. Yablonski became chairman of the clinic after his father’s murder and it was renamed the Yablonski Memorial Clinic. It continues today.