Harlan County, USA


Filmmaker Barbara Kopple

“They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there.
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair.”

Which Side Are You On? by Florence Reece

by Richard Burrill 

The famed Harlan County, Kentucky is back in the news. Blackjewel, the sixth largest coal mining company in the country, recently declared bankruptcy and the owners are refusing to pay the miners. In response, miners have been blocking a train loaded with coal that was attempting to leave Blackjewel property. They have insisted that they will continue to block the train until the company pays them.

Blackjewel and other Kentucky coal companies are either going bankrupt or switching to natural gas, putting many hard working miners out of their jobs. It would seem the owners deserve to be put out of business, but it certainly is doing great damage to the lives of those who have faithfully worked for these greedy people.

But to truly understand what’s happening in Harlan County, it’s important to look back at its longstanding struggle between capital and labor. Much of this is captured in Harlan County, USA a 1976 documentary film that covers the “Brookside Strike,” which took place in southeast Kentucky in 1973. One-hundred eighty coal miners and their wives fought against the Duke Power Company-owned Eastover Coal Company’s Brookside Mine and Prep Plant. Directed and produced by Barbara Kopple, an advocate for worker’s rights, the film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 49th Academy Awards. 

When miners at the Brookside Mine went on strike in June 1973, Kopple went there to film the strike against Duke Power Company, which the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) had helped organize. When she showed up with her crew on the picket lines, no one knew what she was doing.

She and her crew spent years with the families in the film, showing the hard times they were in while striking for fair labor practices, safe working conditions, and decent wages. The film includes interviews with miners who had black lung disease, and miners who were shot at while striking. One major point was that the miners did not want a no-strike clause in their contract.

Rather than narrating, Kopple’s approach was to let the words and actions of these impacted people speak for themselves. The company hired what the miners called ‘gun thugs’ to escort scabs across the picket line and into the mines.

In an interview with Variety, Kopple was asked if she was in danger making the documentary. She told the reporter that the head scab, Basil Collins, wanted to hire someone to shoot her, but she thought the most dangerous things were the acts of violence by the mine owners – beating up strikers and shooting at people’s homes.

The music used in the film reflected the culture of the people, e.g., ‘Dark as a Dungeon’ written by Merle Travis, ‘Black Lung’ and ‘Cold Blooded Murder’ by Hazel Dickens.

Famous film director John Sales wrote “Documentaries open you up into other people’s lives.” This film certainly does that.

When Harlan County, USA was re-released, critic Roger Ebert praised the film, writing,

The film retains all of its power, in the story of a miner’s strike in Kentucky where the company employed goons to escort scabs into the mines, and the most effective pickets were the miners’ wives – articulate, indomitable, courageous. It contains a famous scene where guns are fired at the strikers in the darkness before dawn, and Kopple and her cameraman are knocked down and beaten.

Film critic Dennis Schwartz wrote,

One of the better and more rousing labor strike films that calls attention to class war in America… the film does a good job chronicling the plight of the miner and telling their personal stories. Hazel Dickens’s folk song lyrics of ‘United we Stand, divided we Fall’ and Florence Reece’s lyrics of ‘Which Side are you On?’ give one the full-flavor of the miners’ community in the black mountains of Appalachia.

I highly recommend Harlan County, USAI found it riveting from the opening to the end. In addition to being entertaining, this film teaches a valuable lesson about how greed for personal gain can negatively influence the lives of those who work for you. The owners of Brookside Mine are a lot like those who controlled the coal mines in southwest West Virginia from the 1880’s through the 1930’s. There’s obvious parallels with the Pennsylvania anthracite mines as well. They forced workers to purchase all their needs, including work clothes, from the company store on the mine property. Workers and their families were not allowed access to newspapers or anything from the outside world. That was a time when the workers began to rebel with strikes and attempted to form unions to overcome their near-slavery conditions.

The famous organizer, Mother Jones, went to aid the miners in West Virginia in the early 1900’s and was very effective. Much of what you see in Harlan County, USA must be similar to those times.

There was a popular song in America sometime in the 1960’s entitled “Sixteen Tons.” While many people enjoy this song, I don’t think everyone truly understood what the lyrics said:

Well you load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

The battle of corporations versus their workers over better wages, living conditions, and the need for unions to represent them continues to this day. And it’s a struggle in which we all must participate. As Paulo Freire has said, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

Which side are you on?


Richard Burrill grew up in Maine. He received a BS in Education from the University of Maine. Instead of going to teach high school mathematics immediately after graduation, he chose to enter VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps and served two years working with the poor in Little Rock, Arkansas. He retired in 2012, and, for the last five years has been volunteering with Put People First! PA, a state-wide organization that gives voice to everyday people struggling to meet their basic needs. He lives in York, Pennsylvania.

Harlan County, USA is available on YouTube.



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