by Bill Savitsky Jr.
They called him “Big Bill.” He hated that name, even though it fit. Big in stature, big in strength and intelligence, and most of all, big in spirit and determination. He hated the name because he abhorred any suggestion of stardom, but Bill Savitsky was a natural born leader long before he led the anthracite region’s fight for reform of the miner’s union in the 1960s.
Big Bill could not, and would not, stand by to see injustice done to others, even if it brought great injustice to himself. He did not see this as some moral or social obligation. It was simply the most innate essence of his being. Injustice must be fought, and fought with every fiber of his body until vanquished. It was not an easy life, but our father never asked for easy.
Born into plight and poverty in Frackville, Schuylkill County, the son of an immigrant Lithuanian coal miner and immigrant mother, he escaped the mines as a professional baseball player until he injured his pitching arm in World War II. The army brass had tried at every turn to keep this incredibly bright and talented young sergeant out of combat, but he refused any special treatment. He fought valiantly even though he detested war. He fought because he despised the terror of Nazi tyranny even more.
After the war, he returned to the anthracite coal mines of northeastern Pennsylvania that he had worked as a teenager. Young Bill had been the leader of every group he had ever been part of, captain of every team he was ever on, but it was in the rough and tumble world of coal mining politics that Big Bill really made his mark.
It all started when he was elected by his co-workers to head their local mine safety committee, and he saw miners sick and dying from inhaling coal dust, causing the dreaded disease known as black lung.
He and his co-workers were not asking for much, just some water to keep the coal dust down. But the coal barons were greedy beyond comprehension. Miners were expendable, and water cost money, even if it was a trifling sum. When he turned to the miner’s union for backing, he found the former champion of workers was now in collusion with the mine owners.
This was a double injustice, and it lit the spark that ultimately helped bring down the entire corrupt leadership of the United Mine Workers of America. Over the next decade, Big Bill rallied workers and enlisted the wives and widows of the victims of black lung, men and women who were sick and tired of their unjust treatment but still afraid of the consequences that a fight against injustice almost always brings.
What they needed was a fearless leader, and Big Bill was all of that, and then some.
Because of his union reform activism, he soon found himself put out of work, and not just work in the mines. He was blacklisted by the coal barons who controlled all aspects of the economy and politics of the coal region. He could not find any work for years, despite his best efforts.
Big Bill became the relentless leader of oppressed coal miners and their families throughout the region. In time, he found others around the country of like mind, and he found a very special ally in a most unlikely place.
Joseph “Jock” Yablonski was a high ranking UMWA official, living a life of luxury. He had nothing to gain by joining the fight to reform the union, and everything to lose. He decided to challenge union president W.A. “Tony” Boyle for the union’s highest office in 1969 because he could no longer stand the persecution of mine workers and their families by those deigned to protect them.
Our father was at first suspicious that Jock’s candidacy was just a ruse to deflect honest opposition. Big Bill was soon convinced of Jock’s integrity, and they became fast friends in the fight to return the union to the workers. With our dad as Jock’s anthracite region campaign manager, they turned a wellspring of reform into a waterfall.
The union election of 1969 was an obvious landslide victory for Yablonski. It showed in the turnout, and in the passion of miners for Jock and fellow candidates for lower offices. It showed everywhere but in the official union vote tallies, where Tony Boyle was declared the runaway winner.
The U.S. Department of Labor was alerted. The union reform movement provided the government with plenty of evidence of stuffed ballot boxes, tainted vote counts, bribery and coercion. The fraud would lead to a new election, this time with government oversight to guarantee an honest vote count, a virtual guarantee of victory for Jock Yablonski.
But that ray of hope turned into brutal reality in the late hours of New Year’s Eve, 1969. Three hired union goons broke into the Yablonski family’s western Pennsylvania home and murdered Jock, his wife Margaret and daughter Charlotte in their beds.
I remember our father weeping like I never saw, before or since, when he heard the news. Family members and friends called and stopped by, begging our dad to give up the fight, to save himself from the same fate.
Criminal trials determined that union president Tony Boyle had ordered the murders, and he spent the rest of his life in prison. A federal investigation revealed that the original plot was to murder both Jock and our dad at the same time, while they stayed at a small motel following a campaign rally near Wilkes-Barre. Our dad told me he had “a funny feeling” about some men in the crowd at the rally, and he stood guard outside the motel room door all night while Jock slept inside. Apparently, even armed union goons were afraid to tangle with the tower of strength that was Big Bill.
His vigilance had spared their lives that night, but at the cost of the lives of Jock’s wife and daughter shortly afterward. Maybe that’s why our dad cried so hard at the news of their murders.
The new election was eventually held, and the newly-formed Miners for Democracy candidates were overwhelming victors. Our father was later offered the union presidency, but it was a back-room deal he could never accept. He was elected honestly to the same executive board upon which Jock once served.
Big Bill served in office for many years, refusing pay for his extra duties as chairman of the anthracite miner’s pension fund and as the first national director of the Coal Miners Political Action Committee. He negotiated contracts that tripled anthracite miners’ minimum wages and increased the death benefit for miners killed on the job tenfold. He also persuaded the federal government to guarantee anthracite miners pensions when their pension fund was near bankruptcy.
Our father continued to serve coal miners and their families after his retirement from elected office, until his death in 2003 just shy of his 88th birthday. Big Bill Savitsky never wanted recognition or reward, and he never stopped fighting the good fight. He never turned a coal miner away from his door.
Bill Savitsky Jr. is a freelance writer, editor and photographer who was born and raised in Shenandoah, the son and grandson of coal miners. After attending The American University and then Penn State University, he returned to his hometown as planned because he always wanted to give back to the coal region of his upbringing. Following work with regional newspapers, he became a longtime Northeast Pennsylvania correspondent for The Patriot-News of Harrisburg until it ceased statewide coverage. He then became a guest teacher for special education students in numerous regional school districts and finished his full-time career as a case manager for Schuylkill Community Action, providing low income residents of Schuylkill County with assistance in food, housing and utilities.
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Wonderful article on one of the giants in Labor. It shows how proud the author was of his father as well he should be. I hope that he also knows how proud his father was of his children and their accomplishments. “Big Bill” was one of the best examples of hard coal region integrity, honesty and fortitude. It was a sad day when he passed but his legacy lives on.
Beautifully written. Mr. Savitsky Sr is owed a tremendous debt of gratitude for his unflinching generosity and uncommon courage. Knowing these things now that I couldn’t know when they happened makes me see events in a new light. I recall him and Mrs. Bertha Savitsky well from our neighborhood and both were kind, good people. Now those friendly ‘hello’s to me mean even more because of the tremendous pressures they were both under, yet they had it in them to be unfailingly sweet to a neighborhood child. The issues Mr. Savitsky took on and rectified were often talked about by the adults around our kitchen table so I had some vague awareness of his importance, but it was one thing that set him apart among the blue-collar men that spoke volumes. They tended to nickname everybody, often funny but disparaging nicknames. In our house, he was never, ever referred to as anything but “Mr. Savitsky.” Always. I’m grateful he survived those dangerous years and lived a long life. May he rest in perpetual peace. Thank you for keeping his memory alive.
Thank you! I really enjoyed this glimpse into labor history through a personal and familial lens. A wonderfully written tribute to your father.