CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The scene was a harrowing end to a violent era.
Joseph Yablonski, an outspoken critic of the leadership of the United Mine Workers of America, along with his wife and daughter, lay dead from assassins’ bullets inside their Clarkesville, Pa., home on New Year’s Eve in 1969.
“An activist decade of violence was punctuated by the death of an activist,” said Jason Kozlowski, a historian and labor educator at West Virginia University.
The triple murder was the last political assassination of the 1960s and served as the culminating event that eventually led to a massive shift in the union.
The son of a Polish immigrant killed in a mining disaster, Joseph “Jock” Yablonski was often described as a smart, passionate, hard-working man. Born in 1910, he began working in the mines at a young age. Yablonski began to rise in the UMW’s ranks in 1934, after winning his first union office. By 1958, he became president of UMW District 5 in southern Pennsylvania.
Yablonski served in the position until UMW president W.A. “Tony” Boyle removed him in 1965 because he asked Pennsylvania Gov. Bill Scranton to include coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or black lung, in the state’s workers’ compensation.
“The Boyle administration resisted all the movement towards the whole black lung effort,” said Dr. Donald Rasmussen, 86, who at the time served as chief medical officer for a public health service unit in Beckley.
Rasmussen, a pulmonary specialist who now ambles the halls of his clinic with the aid of a walker, still sees miners on a regular basis. He met Yablonski in 1964 while trying to convince union officials of the seriousness of black lung disease.
The ailment had been forcing many men to stop working; some had a hard time walking up stairs or down the street, while others coughed up black mucus. Rasmussen said Yablonski was receptive to his message, which was a rarity among union officials at the time…