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Talk Like a Red

A labor history in two acts

In the spring of 1997, New York City’s Classic Stage Company hosted a revival of the Depression-era play Waiting for Lefty. A New York Times review reflected on the “unfashionable” concerns of the playwright, Clifford Odets, while at the same time describing the world he conjured in a way that sounds strikingly contemporary: “This is Clifford Odets country, where ordinary people are manipulated and often destroyed by all-powerful economic forces.”

Waiting for Lefty is about a taxi workers’ strike. In the opening scene, a “fat man of porcine appearance” named Harry Fatt speaks directly to the audience, a gunman lurking by his side. You are meant to infer that Fatt is the head of the union, and he is addressing a union hall full of workers. Fatt tells the workers that he knows the times are tough and wages are low, but now is just not the time for a strike. There’s a great guy in the White House, he says, implying that the workers should wait for some kind of federal relief. Anyone who wants to strike, he goes on, is a communist. Fatt then delivers the obligatory xenophobic diatribe about how communists want to traffic your wives and daughters (“like they done in Russia”) and defile statues of Jesus Christ. And anyways, doesn’t everyone have a hot dinner waiting at home they need to get to? “Says you!” a worker screams from the audience.

Workers can always bypass this garbage pile of a roadblock, enact democracy, and strike until the bosses relent. But is it that simple?

The workers are, as the title suggests, waiting for a guy named Lefty to show up. Lefty is their elected chairman, and the cab drivers believe he will support and lead their strike. However, at the moment, he’s nowhere to be found. Either way, the cab drivers aren’t interested in Fatt’s prevarications. They demand to hear from their committee. They want some sort of democracy, not some blowhard and his enforcer. Eventually a tired-looking cabbie named Joe stands up to counter Fatt. He served in the war, wants a strike, but he’s no commie: “But I guess anyone who says straight out he don’t like [getting kicked around], he’s a red boy to the leaders of this union.” Furthermore, “what’s this crap about goin’ home to hot suppers?” he asks. “I’m asking to your faces how many’s got hot suppers to go home to? Anyone who’s sure of his next meal, raise your hand!” Presumably no one raises their hand. “And that’s why we’re talking strike—to get a living wage!” This opening scene establishes a once common understanding: union bosses are often corrupt, spineless, conservative, or incompetent. However, this is no reason to despair. Workers can always bypass this garbage pile of a roadblock, enact democracy, and strike until the bosses relent. But is it that simple? As the play unfolds, Lefty never shows up. He’s found dead, shot in the head by the union’s enforcers.

Odets’s play was based on real events, and while such working-class dramas would indeed become “unfashionable,” the truth of the story nonetheless echoed into the future. Repeatedly, real-life struggles for the control of labor unions and for workplace democracy were met with a violent backlash by union bosses. One of those true stories happened in coal country in the late 1960s, a tale recently brought to life in vivid detail by Mark A. Bradley in Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Workers of America. Bradley presents a saga straight out of “Clifford Odets country,” featuring an intransigent, violent, and corrupt leader named Tony Boyle and a dramatic worker-led fight for the fate of the United Mine Workers of America.


In November 1968, ninety-nine West Virginia coal miners walked into the elevators of Consolidation Coal Companies’ Number 9 mine for the overnight shift. They descended hundreds of feet into the ground to cut coal out of narrow tunnels, a notoriously dangerous job. Since 1900, Bradley writes, “over 101,000 coal miners had been crushed, gassed, electrocuted, or incinerated underground, while another 1.5 million had been seriously injured. Coal miners’ injury rate was four times higher than that of any other industrial job in the United States and fourteen times higher than the national average for all workers.”

Pneumoconiosis, or black lung, blanketed coal country. One problem was that the companies did not care about the miners’ safety. Any amount they spent on protecting workers ate into their profits, and especially during the early twentieth century, it was easy to find new European immigrants to squeeze into underground tunnels, with ceilings as low as two-and-a-half feet. The fact that these tunnels often collapsed and crushed workers was, for the companies, just the cost of doing business. Odorless methane gas often filled underground coal mines like a mob of deadly ghosts, asphyxiating workers or, as it often did, causing explosions that sometimes tore workers’ limbs from their bodies and deposited them in the fields outside the mine. A West Virginia mine near Number 9 had exploded in 1907 and likely crushed over five hundred young men, most of them Italian and Polish immigrants.

These dangerous conditions gave rise to United Mine Workers of America, who for decades fought the coal companies (often quite literally: a clash in Harlan County that lasted for two years in the 1930s resulted in fifty-five unsolved murders by its end) and bargained for better wages. To a large extent, the UMWA found success. Their larger-than-life, autocratic leader John L. Lewis led coal miners to become one of the highest paid industrial professions in the United States by midcentury. But safety was still not a priority—not for the companies, not for UMWA, and not for the government. The union had a one-person safety division, and the Bureau of Mines had only 250 inspectors for 5,400 mines. Bradley finds that District 31, in which Number 9 was located, had spent a mere $14 on safety training in 1968.

At some point during the miners’ shift in Number 9 that November, one of the four gigantic fans that were meant to suck the methane out of the tunnels stopped running. There was supposed to be an alarm system tied to the fans rotation, but someone had disabled it. Unbeknownst to the workers, the tunnels started to fill with methane. This alone could have killed the entire crew, but at about five-thirty in the morning, there was an explosion so powerful that it rattled the windows of a house twelve miles away. Seventy-eight workers died.

This might not have been such a remarkable incident in the coal fields; deadly accidents happened all the time. But the public comments on the behalf of the officials suggested that no one cared. One public relations flack for Consolidation Coal said that the explosion was “something that we have to live with.” An assistant secretary from the Department of the Interior parroted the comments, and the governor of West Virginia, wringing his hands, conceded that “we must recognize that this is a hazardous business and what has occurred here is one of the hazards of being a miner.” Politely, the governor intoned, the miners could fuck off and die.

One of John L. Lewis’s successors at the head of the UMWA, Tony Boyle, didn’t feel much different. In a speech he gave just days afterward, Boyle praised “Consolidation Coal Company’s safety record and its history of cooperation with the union,” Bradley writes. “He reminded the families, as if they did not already know it, that coal mining was a very dangerous way to make a living.” There wasn’t any friction between the coal companies and the union’s leadership. “I hated him right then,” a twenty-one-year-old coal miner’s widow told the Washington Post.

The catastrophe at Number 9 unsettled the rank-and-file membership of UMWA. It inspired a group of miners to found the Black Lung Association the following January, partially egged on by the crusading lawyer Ralph Nader, who saw the disaster as an opening to push for change. He encouraged workers to fight for compensation for black lung treatment as well as higher safety standards. In February, when over forty thousand miners struck in support of the Black Lung Association, Tony Boyle called the members of the group “black-tongue loudmouths.” Boyle, a short man from Montana with a Mr. Burns haircut, ruled the union absolutely and tolerated no dissent. At the UMWA’s Florida convention in 1964, a delegate who had asked why coal companies were allowed to vote on union matters was punched and kicked by a pro-Boyle squad who patrolled the floor of the conference. The goons injured the delegate so badly the proceedings had to halt as the bloodied man was dragged out of the hall.

After the disaster, Nader began looking into the finances of the UMWA with the sneaking suspicion that Tony Boyle was fleecing the union. It turned out he was right: Boyle was exceedingly corrupt. The union was, for Boyle, a surefire way for him and his family to get rich. When he was a union official in Montana, Boyle pressured inspectors to close mines owned by rivals to help those owned by his brother. As head of the UMWA, he installed family members in no-show jobs that paid high salaries. Boyle also used the members’ massive pension fund to enrich himself. He kept the money in a bank owned by the union, in an interest-free account, meaning that retirees were lending the bank millions of dollars for free. For this, Boyle sat on the board of the bank, received what in today’s dollars equates to a six-figure salary, and often slept through meetings. Boyle’s wealth, you might say, was contingent on having no problem with seventy-eight people dying in the dark of a West Virginia coal mine.

The rank and file began to wake up to the corruption and uselessness of the UMWA leadership in 1969. Inspired by the upswell, a union official named Joseph “Jock” Yablonski decided to challenge Boyle’s presidency in an election later that year. Yablonski was a squat, muscly miner who grew up poor in Pittsburgh. He was fifty-nine and had spent most of his adult life in the union. His decision to run came with the encouragement of Nader, who had identified Yablonski as a leader who might clean up the organization. But it was also Yablonski’s wife, a playwright, who “berated him for becoming Boyle’s ‘flunky,’ and urged him to enter the union’s presidential race.” Bradley writes that “she had no patience for his reluctance, especially after he repeatedly told her how corrupt Boyle was.” But his reluctance wasn’t cowardice; he was all too aware of how common murder and violence were in the UMWA. “No other labor union in American history,” Bradley writes, “has been found liable in so many jury trials for violent conduct.” Yablonski told Nader that if he ran, he would probably be killed. Nader, a Harvard-educated lawyer, scoffed. There’s no way they’d go after you, he said. Nader did not understand what he was getting Yablonski into.

When Yablonski announced his run for president, he spoke of the need to drastically reform the union. His campaign was necessary, he said, because of “the insufferable gap between the union’s leaders and the working men they were supposed to represent.” He was supported by the Black Lung Association and the Association of Disabled Miners and Widows, and promised to provide benefits and medical care to ailing workers, as well as, of course, raise safety standards. But it didn’t end there. Yablonski wanted the UMWA to use its resources to reverse the environmental damage wrought by coal mining, enhance the region’s sorry social services, and establish credit unions for the miners and their families. As Bradley puts it, he demanded that the coal companies clean up the region’s “polluted streams and smoking slag heaps.”

Yablonski’s message inspired scores of miners, but Boyle struck out against him, employing his vast system of punishments and rewards to mobilize a counterinsurgency. He used the union’s newspaper to smear Yablonski, and after a slew of nasty rumors and half-truths went public, Nader cautiously walked back his support. Boyle then proceeded to unilaterally increase the pension benefits of seventy thousand retirees (who voted in union elections), even though the move would have bankrupted the pension fund within six years. He used union money to pay for his campaign, outspending the $60,000 Yablonski had personally invested by millions. At a campaign stop in Springfield, Illinois, a man came up behind Yablonski and karate chopped him right below the ear, almost killing him. Legal attempts to get Nixon’s labor department to intervene to ensure the elections wouldn’t be manipulated, and to uphold the anti-corruption Landrum-Griffin Act, went nowhere. Big labor also wanted nothing to do with the insurgent campaign. AFL-CIO chief George Meany insisted on sitting on the sidelines. He didn’t “want Yablonski’s uprising to spread among his own ranks,” Bradley writes. That November, in a sham election full of stuffed ballot boxes, Boyle won reelection by a landslide.

What is bizarre is that, even with the deck stacked against Yablonski, Boyle ordered him to be killed. So it was that on December 31, 1969, two men, on Boyle’s orders, snuck into Yablonski’s house and murdered him, his wife, and his daughter while they slept. Boyle was later found guilty of murder and died in jail.

Decade of the Rank and File

Yablonski’s murder, as it turned out, galvanized the insurgency, which came to include a group called the Miners for Democracy. After a federal judge invalidated the election results and ordered a do-over, the membership organized the first rank-and-file convention in U.S. labor history. Their candidate, Arnold Miller, would go on to defeat Boyle by fourteen thousand votes. “Arnold Miller and his band of reformers used Jock Yablonski’s assassination to encode functional democracy into the UMWA’s DNA,” Bradley writes. They ratified almost all of Yablonski’s expansive platform. But not one of the major labor leaders came forward to congratulate Miller on the victory.

In 1970 alone, there were 5,716 strikes involving more than 3 million workers, many of which were self-organized, sometimes illegal, wildcat strikes.

Miller had some successes, but he was ultimately an inadequate leader, and the fortunes of coal were soon on the decline. Oil and gas were bringing down the price of coal, and coal companies slowly began to leave Appalachia while increasing production in the largely non-union western United States. But the revolution for a democratically controlled union that began in the UMWA soon spread to the other major unions, including the Teamsters and the United Steelworkers of America. Workers across the board were empowered to strike in the long 1970s, what labor scholar Cal Winslow calls the “decade of the rank and file.” In 1970 alone, there were 5,716 strikes involving more than 3 million workers, many of which were self-organized, sometimes illegal, wildcat strikes. One wildcat strike of postal workers involved over two hundred thousand workers. Teachers unions often led the way. In 1966, fifty-four strikes were called involving forty-five thousand teachers. A secretary of the radical National Education Association said at the time that “strikes are illegal, yet teachers are calling them and making gains with them.” During the 1975–1976 school year there were 203 strikes.

This continues to the present day. In 2010, a group called the Caucus of Rank and File Educators took over the once-conservative Chicago Teachers Union and organized a crippling strike in 2012, one of the largest strikes in the United States this century. Like the miners, the teachers’ demands were expansive, going beyond the self-interested demands of higher wages and benefits. They wanted to decrease class sizes and high-stakes testing, as well as increase music, art, and gym offerings. Six years later, teachers in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia participated in a series of wildcat strikes, the likes of which had not been seen since the 1970s. Recently, NBA basketball players, foregoing union approval, led a wildcat strike to draw attention to the latest wave of Black men murdered by police.

Walkin’ Off the Job

The Depression years, especially 1934, when Waiting for Lefty was written, were tumultuous years for labor. The success of Waiting for Lefty had to do with the shock of seeing working-class life brought to the stage. The play was first put on by the famous Group Theatre in January of 1935, where the cast took an absurd twenty-eight curtain calls. It quickly moved to Broadway in March, where the ticket prices were held down to make sure that working people could afford to see the show, and it became a sensation across the country. The play was still subversive. The ban-happy Brahmins made sure it didn’t play in Boston; it was forbidden in New Haven; and in Newark, cast members were thrown in jail. It reminds me of our era’s biggest Broadway hit, Hamilton, a play so controversial that it caused a number of its cast members to be viciously blacklisted. Oh wait, what am I saying? Hamilton was a play that whitewashed the experience of the working people of its era (slaves), uncritically dramatized the lives of bosses, failed to inspire a single political thought in anyone, and received breathless public plaudits from the whole spectrum of our ruling class (Rupert Murdoch, Barack Obama, and Dick Cheney all chimed in). I’m sure the Brahmins would’ve loved it.

We mourn Joseph Yablonski—and everyone else who died so the masses could see a better world—but it is never about one person. In fact, if we have any imagination at all, every leader will disappoint us.

The labor unrest of the mid-1930s gave way to a good twenty to thirty years of labor power. It inspired a raft of supportive legislation and business leaders who more frequently acquiesced to workers’ demands, including pensions, paid vacation, and eight-hour days, among other things. Union membership, which had swelled in the 1930s, stayed relatively stable into the 1960s. The biggest unions during that time, including the United Auto Workers, the Teamsters, and the United Mine Workers of America, became massive institutions bargaining on behalf of millions of workers. To a large extent, they had come to see themselves not as opponents to the companies they bargained with, but as partners with big business. George Meany, the president of the AFL-CIO from 1955 to 1979, said: “I never went on a strike in my life; I never ran a strike in my life; I never ordered anyone else to run a strike in my life, never had anything to do with a picket line.” Meany saw labor’s role not as revolutionary but as conservative: unions would work with businesses to lock in the post-war (and pre-civil rights) industrial boom that happily accepted white, male supremacy in the workplace and a throbbing military-industrial complex.

A lot of workers responded to this tacit, cowardly pact with business as they did in the 1930s: they weren’t having it. Beginning in the 1960s, there was wave after wave of wildcat strikes across the industries of coal mining, automobile, trucking, education, railroad, construction, and transit. Workers were extraordinarily militant at the time, and to my contemporary eyes, fucking crazy. During one strike in New York City, workers shut down the metropolis by raising the drawbridges and taking fuses, keys, handles, and electrical parts with them as they walked off the job. And it wasn’t just about money. Workers wanted much more than just raises and guaranteed cost-of-living adjustments; they wanted racial equity, healthy communities, and responsive, politically active unions. And they were willing to fight for it.

It’s a simple process that recurs throughout history: workers see injustice, they organize each other, and they fight for change. Institutions and their leaders are often worthless, corrupt, intransigent, cowardly, moronic, or some delightful combination thereof. Bradley’s book, in grisly detail, shows what the basic project of democracy is up against, and how it might triumph again. We mourn Yablonski—and everyone else who died so the masses could see a better world—but it is never about one person. In fact, if we have any imagination at all, every leader will disappoint us. This isn’t a reason to give up on the process. In fact, this is yet another point that the taxi driver Joe hears from his wife Edna in Waiting for Lefty.

Edna: When in the hell will you get wise—

Joe: I’m not so dumb as you think! But you are talking like a red.

Edna: I don’t know what that means. But when a man knocks you down you get up and kiss his fist! You gutless piece of bologna.

Joe: One man can’t—

Edna (with great joy): I don’t say one man! I say a hundred, a thousand, a whole million, I say. But start in your own union. Get those hack boys together! Sweep out those racketeers like a pile of dirt! . . . Goddamnit! I’m tired of slavery and sleepless nights.

You almost can’t imagine a character in a popular drama expressing this sentiment today. Instead, our faces are set directly in front of a waste pipe gushing with television shows like Succession, shows that excessively humanize the lives of the wealthy people who control the world. Few do anything to clarify the experience of the masses, or, like Bradley’s book, render a nuanced picture of a real, successful struggle for democracy that didn’t wait for approval and never limited the scope of its demands. It was surely unsurprising that many clueless news outlets mistakenly called NBA players’ refusal to take the court a “boycott” instead of the spontaneous wildcat strike that it was. But possibly next year, amidst the acidifying bog of our coronavirus recession, a playwright will pen a labor story for these times, clarify us to ourselves, and be met with Brahmin bans and rapturous applause.