Thursday, September 17, 2009

When hailing Trumka, remember Yablonski!

Rich Trumka, now AFL-CIO president, had a fine reputation when he was president of the United Mine Workers; and he has been a good militant voice for the AFL-CIO as secretary treasurer; and he will surely be a good workers' representative as AFL-CIO president. In any event, it is hard to think of a better choice.

But as Rich ascends, it is a proper time to remember where he came from and how he got there. If not for Jock Yablonski, Trumka would probably be forgotten, if ever even noticed.

In 1969, Joseph (Jock) Yablonski, announced that he was insurgent candidate for president of the United Mine Workers. Incumbent Tony Boyle, successor to John L. Lewis, continued Lewis's autocratic regime, with the added ingredients of incompetence and corruption. "Union Democracy," Yablonski declared, "is the single most important issue in the campaign for election of a new UMW president." By the year's end, Yablonski had been murdered, along with his wife and daughter. (A few years later, Boyle was convicted of ordering the murders and died in prison.)

After the murder, the Miners for Democracy was formed to continue Yablonski's reform battle. Led by Joseph Rauh, Yablonski's attorney, a team of volunteer attorneys was recruited to back the MFD. At the time, Richard Trumka, by then a young attorney and obviously on his way out of the mines, became one of that team. The MFD defeated Boyle and democratized the union. It was Yablonski's battle to the death and the MFD's courageous continuation of the cause that opened the way for Trumka to the UMW presidency, from there to AFL-CIO secretary, and up to the presidency.

This summer, the United Steelworkers endorsed Trumka in a two-page declaration in its magazine. They tell us that he became a miner at 19, went to law school, became a lawyer, and served as staff attorney for the United Mine Workers in 1974. They neglect to mention that he could become a UMW attorney only because Yablonski led the movement that ousted the UMW old regime led by the crooked and murderous Tony Boyle and that as a young lawyer Trumka served the insurgent Miners for Democracy.

In the course of new events and with the burden of new responsibilities, Rich may disremember. But this generation of labor activists must remember Jock Yablonski. Trumka can be where he is today only because Jock Yablonski, at the cost of his life, inspired an insurgent reform movement in the United Mine Workers. Trumka's rise and Yablonski's martyrdom reminds us of those union activists who fight for union democracy today because they understand its important to the future of the labor movement. The labor establishment ignores Yablonski's sacrifice for democracy in the UMW because they distrust insurgent democracy in their own unions.

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