Harlan County USA (1976)

“The laws were not made for working people in this county.”

Murder, mayhem, and a gun-toting mine foreman. Miners and their families living in substandard company shacks without running water…A few minutes into the amazing documentary Harlan County, USA, I had to stop the film and double check the years these events took place.

It’s really difficult to grasp at times that these feudal conditions existed at the Brookside Mining Company in Harlan County, Kentucky in the early 70s–post IWW and not late 19th century. With safety issues flagrantly ignored, horrendous work conditions, and miners crouching in a four-foot high workspace, accidents in the Brookside Mine were three times the national average. The Brookside Miners belonged to the company union and earned $17 to $32 a day while the national average was $45 for United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). In 1973, workers became fed up and voted to join the UMWA. The Eastover Mining Company who ran Brookside Mine refused to sign a contract, and a strike began. All hell broke loose as management brought in scabs and violence erupted between the striking miners and those sent in to ensure that work continued.

Filmmaker Barbara Kopple was there in Kentucky with the miners’ families to film events as the strike continued and became incredibly ugly. Extraordinary footage includes Kopple and her team coming under fire as scab workers attempt to go to work. As the strike continues and strikebreaking forces become increasingly more violent, the striking miners and their angry wives begin defensive tactics on the picket line. At one point, miner’s wife, the spirited Lois Scott pulls a gun from her bra and vows she’s not going to take being shoved around any more. But for me, one of the greatest scenes in this truly phenomenal film is when the local sheriff, who arrives to hassle the strikers, finds himself forced to arrest “gun-thug” mine foreman Basil Collins–a man who’s so confident about his “right” to intimidate and harass the strikers that he openly brandishes weapons in broad daylight. Odd…the sheriff was never around when the violence was unleashed against the miners. But he manages to put in an appearance in order to tell the miners to stop blocking the road. Obviously with things this completely out-of-control, it was just a matter of time before someone was murdered in Harlan County.

Archival footage includes scenes of strikes that took place during the “Bloody Harlan” strike in the 1930s. One older miner explains that as a child working in the mine, there was a powerful “union’ of political and religious authorities to ensure that miners towed the line. The film also includes clips of UMWA presidents John Lewis and W.A. Boyle. Unpopular Union President Tony Boyle who some said was “in bed with the coal operators” orchestrated the murders of union activist and challenger Joseph Yablonski and his family in 1969 using union funds to pay the assassins.

The new Criterion version of Harlan County, USA includes a director’s commentary that’s well worth catching. For example in the opening of the film, we see miners sliding down into the belly of the mine on a chute. The director’s comments make the point that this was absolutely illegal and considered unsafe, but this was just one example of the many hazards at the mine.

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Filed under Documentary, Political/social films

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