As Don Blankenship faces a likely federal indictment, the former CEO of coal giant Massey Energy is flailing out on his website against his enemies. He has accused the leadership of the United Mine Workers of possibly hiring a contract killer who murdered a strike breaking coal truck driver in 1985. The president of the UMWA then was Richard Trumka, the current president of the AFL-CIO. One of his lieutenants was Cecil Roberts, now the president of the UMWA.
Blankenship says that last weekend he watched a Charles Bronson movie, Act of Vengeance, about corrupt UMWA president Tony Boyle in 1969 hiring assassins to murder Jock Yablonski, who was challenging him for the presidency of the union. Blankenship says that one point in the film an actor playing a Boyle lieutenant says, “If he (Yablonski) wins a hell of a lot of us will go to jail.”
Blankenship seems to have equated Roberts with the convicted murderer Boyle. “Perhaps when Cecil says that Don Blankenship belongs behind bars he is trying to divert attention from himself,” Blankenship writes. “Perhaps when he patronizes prosecutors he is trying to gain favor for himself.”
“There’s not a word of truth to anything Blankenship said,” says a UMWA spokesperson. “Our lawyers our looking to see if this is actionable.” The AFL-CIO has not replied to my request for a comment from Trumka.
I tell the story of the strike in my book: The Price of Justice: A True Story of Greed and Corruption, which documents the fourteen-year struggle of two Pittsburgh lawyers, Dave Fawcett and Bruce Stanley, to bring Blankenship to justice. In those years Stanley was a young reporter for the Williamson Gazette, in the heart of coal country.
The 1984-85 strike was not only the longest in UMWA history, but also one of the most significant strikes in American labor history. The UMWA lost signaling the beginning of the end of the militant union as the most powerful political force in the region. The UMWA these days is largely a union of retirees and disabled. It was Don Blankenship, then the young president of a Massey subsidiary, who won the strike and pushed the union into decline.
As a young college man, Blankenship worked summers as a union miner and spent a whole year earning enough to go back to college. He understood the miners and the seemingly inevitable trajectory of UMW strikes. They typically started with marchers and cheers but sooner or later there was violence, and whoever was blamed usually lost the strike.
Blankenship’s lifelong friend, Elliott Maynard, then a circuit judge, ruled that the union could not march or have a full range of pickets. That’s when a few desperate miners turned to violence, burning a building. When Hayes West, a strikebreaking truck driver, was shot to death and another man wounded, the UMWA called a halt to the fifteen-month strike.
Trumka was hoping to create a new kind of union in which there was no longer the threat of violence, and West’s death was a blow to him and to his union. Trumka was an ambitious, smart man and it was unthinkable that he or other UMWA leaders would hire a contract killer as Blankenship suggests may have happened.
I have spent the past two and a half years writing a book about how two Pittsburgh lawyers, Dave Fawcett and Bruce Stanley, spent fourteen years trying to bring Blankenship to justice. In its review of The Price of Justice, Publishers Weekly said that Blankenship is “a villain for the ages,” and so he is. He was a poor West Virginia boy who could have done so much good. He chose a different route although he is convinced he is a heroic figure fighting the evils of the union, government regulation and compromising politicians.
Blankenship’s three-page rant encapsulates the tragic trajectory of coal country set in place largely by Blankenship. It is a paranoid document blaming misguided, often evil outsiders of destroying the most important industry in the region. He blames Obama, federal safety regulators and environmentalists for decimating the coal business.
The reality is that the coal industry in Appalachia is declining largely because after 140 years most of the large, easily accessed seams have been mined out, and newly discovered natural gas has a large price advantage. Blankenship will have none of that, and over the last three decades has been more responsible than anyone else in creating a self-pitying paranoia and an almost crazed fear of outsiders. This attitude has prevented the region from looking at alternatives to a dying industry. If nothing happens, within twenty years the Appalachian highlands will be like the frontier provinces of Pakistan, home to a dying, deprived people where almost nobody dares to go and even government walks carefully.
But there is hope and that hope begins with the criminal prosecution of Blankenship. US Attorney Booth Goodwin has done a systematic investigation, working up from the lower level employers, convicting one after another of misconduct that helped lead to the deaths of 29 miners at Upper Big Branch in 2010. Goodwin stands now before Blankenship’s door, and by all indications he is not walking away. And Blankenship seems to know it. “If they put me behind bars…it will be political,” Blankenship asserts.
The knock will likely come in the next few weeks, and with it the possibility of a new kind of future for coal country. If it does the two heroes of my book, Bruce Stanley and Dave Fawcett, will deserve part of the credit along with an independent, fearless US Attorney and his tireless staff.