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LABOR: Tough Tony in Trouble?

5 minute read

When the 200,000 members of the United Mine Workers choose between Arnold Miller and Incumbent W.A. (“Tony”) Boyle for the presidency of the union in early December, it ought to be the most honest election in American labor history. At a cost of $4,000,000, the Labor Department is closely supervising the election to make sure that no one steals or stuffs the ballot boxes. More than 1,000 federal poll watchers will be on duty, covering every U.M.W. voting place, however remote. They must sign a receipt for every ballot they take with them to the field, and they will personally transport the ballot boxes back to the Labor Department, sleeping with them along the way if necessary. The ballots will be counted with representatives of both contestants near by.

That may seem to be overdoing it, but U.M.W. elections are not the ordinary kind—especially not since 1969 when Boyle soundly defeated Challenger Joseph (“Jock”) Yablonski. After a campaign in which Yablonski was beaten up and often kept from speaking, Boyle’s henchmen refused to reveal the location of many voting places, did not announce voting hours, electioneered at the polls and chased away poll watchers sent by the other camp. As a result, Boyle’s totals bore only a casual relationship to the number of voters in the districts.

Shortly after that election, Yablonski, his wife and daughter were murdered. Washington, which had never shown much interest in the murky affairs of the U.M.W., suddenly got busy. Two union officials, one of them a member of Boyle’s hand-picked executive board, were indicted for conspiracy to commit murder; five other individuals have been convicted of murder. Yablonski’s two sons, Kenneth and Chip, brought suit to set aside the election. A U.S. district court agreed, and a new one was ordered.

The campaign has been turbulent. A third-generation miner who speaks in a soft, hoarse voice and suffers from the dreaded “black lung” disease of the pits, Candidate Miller, 50, carries a big stick—specifically, a shotgun beneath the seat of his car. He never hits the campaign trail without an armed bodyguard, while he ventures into pro-Boyle precincts that Yablonski stayed away from. He means to come back alive, which is why he keeps his schedule a secret. “They are not going to know where I’ll be,” Miller says, “and I won’t be where they expect. I haven’t made the Yablonski thing an issue, but we know what they can do.”

Gradually Miller is making his point that the average miner is the chief victim of U.M.W. complacency and corruption. He flails Boyle and the staff of U.M.W. headquarters in Washington for fancy living and disregard of the rank and file. “The U.M.W. hierarchy owns 16 Cadillacs,” he complains, “and we’re gonna auction ’em off.” If elected, Miller promises to cut the union president’s salary from $50,000 a year to $35,000. “I’d like to go out to the coal fields and say to some miner: ‘Here, old timer, here’s a thousand bucks of your money.'”

Trying to win over retired miners, who make up 40% of eligible union voters, Miller has pledged that he will raise pensions to $200 a month. He points out that coal miners now get $150, while steelworkers average $405 a month and autoworkers receive $500. He contends that the coal companies can afford higher royalties for higher pensions.

Terrible. Above all, Miller has attacked Boyle for neglecting mine safety at the cost of hundreds of lives each year. Over Boyle’s opposition, Miller led a successful fight for stricter regulations in the mines and for increased compensation for victims of black lung. “My stepfather is going through the last painful stages of the disease,” he says, “and it’s terrible to watch. I’ve seen a lot of men die from it, and I don’t want to see any more.”

Facing the prospect of losing an election for the first time since he succeeded John L. Lewis in 1963, Boyle, now 70, is doing what he never did before: touring the coal fields, visiting the sick and disabled, cuddling up to orphans. He has also accused Miller and his slate of nominees to the U.M.W. board of being “malcontents,” “leftists” and “hippies” who are in the hire of outside interests that want to take over the union. Boyle described Miller and his colleagues as “The three stooges running on the Moscow Fire Department slate.” Boyle used to be able to rely on the United Mine Workers Journal to carry his message to miners who read little else. But no more. A federal court has ordered the twice-monthly publication to give space to both sides. Boyle thus suffers the indignity of reading in his own paper the charge that he authorized payment to the convicted killers of Yablonski.

The election is considered too close to call. Boyle still has supporters who give him credit for boosting wages from $37 to $50 a day. “It takes somebody with guts to run a union,” says Robert Talley, a strip-mine bulldozer operator from Greenville, Ky., who is leaning toward Boyle. “If they had an archbishop running, I wouldn’t vote for him.” Yet even if Boyle should eke out another victory, he has nowhere to go but down. He is currently appealing his federal conviction for handing out $49,000 in union dues to political candidates, but he is not likely to succeed, and—assuming that he wins the election—he will be forced to step down. Boyle’s ruthless rule will then belong to an unlamented past.

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