• History
  • Opinion

Coal Miners Helped Shape America’s Labor Landscape. Their Industry Is Fading, But That History Is Worth Remembering

7 minute read

A huge sigh of relief could be heard across the coalfields on Sept. 16 when Murray Energy Holdings, America’s fourth largest coal producer, announced that a federal bankruptcy judge had approved its Chapter 11 plan to sell all its assets to American Consolidated Natural Resources (ACNR), a new company set up by its former creditors. ACNR is now the largest privately owned coal operator in the United States. Its owners hope to extract about 35 million tons of bituminous coal a year from its pits, and they have agreed to hire United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) coal miners, who once worked for Murray, to help them do it.

This is good news for the union’s sorely pressed coal miners, who could use the work. How long Murray’s reincarnation will last, however, is anyone’s guess. No amount of corporate planning can negate declining demand and the rise of alternative energy sources. When it comes to career security, those facts now pose more of a threat to the country’s miners than dangers that long defined the industry.

No other workers in American history have earned their livings in such perilous conditions or paid such high prices for what they earn. Since 1900, when the federal government first began compiling statistics on coal mining deaths, over 105,000 coal miners have been crushed, gassed, electrocuted or incinerated underground, and well over 15 times as many have been seriously injured. None of this carnage includes the ravages of pneumoconiosis, or black lung, which has made the lungs of generations of coal miners as porous as fishing nets. These dangers have been inextricable from the labor history of coal mining—and, as the future of the industry hangs in the balance, that past is still worth remembering.

The often deadly hazards of being a coal miner were on full display during the early morning hours of Nov. 20, 1968, when Consolidation Coal Company’s Number 9 mine exploded so violently that it shook the windows in Fairmont, W.Va., 12 miles away. Seventy-eight miners working the midnight-to-8 a.m. “cat-eye” shift perished, leaving behind 74 widows and 235 children. Federal safety inspectors later determined that one of the mine’s four huge surface fans had thrown off its blades and ground to a halt, allowing the mine’s tunnels to fill with deadly, odorless methane gas and mix with thick coal dust, which became like gunpowder and transformed the mine’s shafts into smoking barrels of underground cannons after a spark most likely set them off. Number 9’s safety system was designed to warn its miners about ventilation problems, but someone in the company decided that evacuating miners interfered too much with cutting and loading coal and disabled the fan’s alarm just hours before it tossed off its blades.

Get your history fix in one place: sign up for the weekly TIME History newsletter

Then, while the 78 miners still lay entombed in the burning mine, W.A. “Tony” Boyle, the UMWA’s ruthless president, praised the coal company’s horrendous safety record even though federal and state safety inspectors had cited it for multiple safety violations that year. When consumer champion Ralph Nader subsequently exposed the fact that Boyle, his family and his cronies were using the union’s treasury as their personal piggy bank, it finally pushed Joseph “Jock” Yablonski, a former miner and long-time union insider, over the edge.

On May 29, 1969, Yablonski kicked off his campaign for the UMWA’s presidency with a press conference at Washington, D.C.’s Mayflower Hotel with a ten-point program that promised a robust expansion of the union’s one-man safety division, paid sick leave, and most radically, a pledge to use the UMWA’s vast resources—it was then the richest labor union in the country—to improve Central Appalachia’s woefully inadequate schools, expand its sparse social services, and force the coal companies to clean up the region’s putrid streams and smoking slag heaps.

Yablonski cautioned the assembled reporters that none of this was going to be easy; these reforms might cost him his life. He was right. That June, an unknown attacker on Tony Boyle’s personal payroll nearly killed Yablonski with a punch that slammed into the back of his neck during what was supposed to be a friendly meeting with supporters in Springfield, Ill. Seven more failed attempts followed over the next six months, while Yablonski crisscrossed the coalfields, accusing Boyle of stealing the union’s funds and doing nothing to protect the health and safety of its coal miners. His charges made no difference. Boyle used massive voter fraud and spent millions in embezzled union funds to steal the union’ presidential election. Yablonksi refused to concede and vowed to send his foe to prison. Enraged, Boyle ordered his lieutenants to redouble their efforts.

Three hitmen finally cornered Yablonski during the early morning hours of New Year’s Eve 1969, after they broke into his isolated farmhouse in Clarksville, Pa., and slaughtered him, his wife and his daughter while they slept.

The triple murders became the most infamous crimes in the history of American labor unions. They triggered one of the largest and most successful manhunts in the FBI’s history and also led to the first-successful rank-and-file takeover of a major labor union in U.S. history, one that not only transformed the UMWA into one of the country’s most democratic unions but also inspired workers in other unions to rise up and challenge their own entrenched, out-of-touch leaders.

But not even democracy could inoculate the union’s coal miners against powerful economic forces they could not control. Coal now supplies just 23% percent of the country’s electricity, down from 50% percent ten years ago. To compete, the coal industry has moved largely to the West, a region with a long history of opposing organized labor and supporting right-to-work laws.

Meanwhile, coal miners are still dying from black lung. In Central Appalachia, as many as one in five miners have symptoms of this incurable and progressive disease. Their predicament has been made all the more dire because the pension fund that sick and retired miners rely on will be empty by 2022 if not sooner, unless Congress steps in with legislation to save it.

They deserve better, and Congress should throw their pension fund a lifeline and make sure it is fully solvent. Their sweat and blood provided the “black gold” that built this country’s industrial base and paved the way for many of the benefits Americans now take for granted such as an eight-hour workday, health insurance, safer workplaces and pensions for those who are still lucky enough to get them.

Jock Yablonski and his wife and daughter rest on the highest hill in Washington, Pa.’s Washington Cemetery. In the more than 50 years they have lain there, new challenges—cheap natural gas, global warming and hollow political promises to bring back a way of life that is rapidly vanishing—have been added to the long list of threats already faced by members of the union he fought and died for. Even as coal becomes a fuel of the past, the miners’ sacrifices should not be forgotten.

W.W. Norton

Mark A. Bradley is the author of Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Workers of America, available now from W.W. Norton & Company.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com