Friday, August 27, 2010

Which Side Are You On?

As we approach Labor Day 2010 in an America that is increasingly hostile to union workers, I felt it was appropriate to share this with you, my readers.  Earlier today I had the pleasure of viewing "Harlan County USA". If you have not seen it, I highly recommend it. You can view it in its entirety at the end of this blog post.

From Wikipedia:

Harlan County, USA is a 1976 documentary film covering the efforts of 180 coal miners on strike against the Duke Power Company-owned Eastover Coal Company's Brookside Mine and Prep Plant in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1973. It was directed by Barbara Kopple, who has long been an advocate of workers' rights. Harlan County, U.S.A. is less ambivalent in its attitude toward unions than her later American Dream, the account of the Hormel Foods strike in Austin, Minnesota in 1985-86.

Kopple initially intended to make a film about Kenzie, Miners for Democracy and the attempt to unseat Tony Boyle. When miners at the Brookside Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky, struck in June 1972, Kopple went there to film the strike against Duke Power Company and UMWA's response. The strike proved a more interesting subject, so Kopple switched the focus of her film.

Kopple and her crew spent years with the families depicted in the film, documenting the dire straits they find themselves in while striking for safer working conditions, fair labor practices, and decent wages: following them to picket in front of the stock exchange in New York, filming interviews with people affected by black lung disease, and even catching miners being shot at while striking.

The most significant point of disagreement in the Harlan County strike was the company's insistence on including a no-strike clause in the contract. The miners were concerned that accepting such a provision in the agreement would limit their influence over local working conditions. The sticking point was mooted when, a few years after this strike, the UMWA folded the agreement that was eventually won by this group of workers into a global contract.

Rather than using narration to tell the story, Kopple chose to let the words and actions of these people speak for themselves. For example, when the company goons show up early in the film — the strikers call them "gun thugs" — the goons try to keep their guns hidden from the camera. But as the strike drags on for nearly a year, both sides are more than willing to openly brandish their weapons.

Kopple also produces some interesting facts about the strike, such as the fact that Duke Power Company's profits increased more than 100 percent in a single year. Meanwhile, the striking miners, many of whom are living in squalid conditions without even the basics like running water, only received a 4% pay increase despite a 7% cost of living increase for that same year.

Another key element in this movie is the country and bluegrass music so central to the miners' lives. There are songs by Merle Travis, Hazel Dickens and Florence Reece, who makes a key appearance in the movie. Old as she is — she remembers when Harlan County was known as "Bloody Harlan" in the days of the Great Depression — Florence delivers a touching, throaty rendition of her most famous labor song, "Which Side Are You On?"

For those who may not understand the strike's importance, the specter of death always seems to loom large in this movie. A good case in point is the story of Joseph Yablonski, a passionate, populist union representative who was loved by many of the miners. Yablonski challenged W. A. Boyle for the presidency of the UMWA in 1969, but lost in an election widely viewed as corrupt. Later that year, Yablonski and his family were found murdered in their home. W.A. Boyle is shown early in the film in good health. Later he is seen frail, sickly and confined to a wheelchair, being carried up the courthouse steps to face a conviction for giving $20,000 to another union executive council member to hire the killers.

Almost a full year into the strike a striking miner named Lawrence Jones is fatally shot during a scuffle. Jones was well-liked, quite young and had a 16-year-old wife and a baby. His mother collapsed from grief at his funeral. This tragic moment more than anything else finally forces the strikers and the management to come to the bargaining table.

A central figure in the documentary is Lois Scott, a firebrand who plays a major role in galvanizing the community in support of the strike. Several times she is seen publicly chastising those she feels have been absent from the picket lines. In one scene, Scott pulls a pistol from her bra. Associate director Anne Lewis compares Scott to Women's Liberation activists in the film's 2004 Criterion Collection special feature The Making of Harlan County, USA.

Jerry Johnson, one of the striking Eastover miners, attributes the ultimate conclusion of the strike to the presence of Kopple and her film crew: "The cameras probably saved a bunch of shooting. I don’t think we’d have won it without the film crew. If the film crew hadn’t been sympathetic to our cause, we would’ve lost. Thank God for them; thank God they’re on our side."

In an age of corporate-owned media, manufactured consent and the ability of PR firms to convince people to vote against their own interests, this film reminds us of the power of collective action. What is good for workers is good for America.

We, as a community, need to decide. So, which side are you on?


  1. There is also an excellent film with Holly Hunter called, Harlan County War.

  2. Good to see you getting back to your roots my friend. Excellent post.

  3. As working people have their wages and benefits cuts they will have to decide "which side are they on".Manufactured issues by the corporate media and is winning in have people vote against their interests. WAKE UP WORKERS the middle class is losing.

  4. I prize my copy of this documentary, and occasionally sort of force people to watch it. OK, I bribe 'em with pizza, but no one has every regretted seeing a part of Kentucky history most people are unaware of.