Films To While Away The Class Struggle By- The Class Struggle is….”hot running water and a big old bathtub”- "Harlan County, U.S.A."- A Review
Harlan County, U.S.A., starring the workers of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and the women of the Brookside (Kentucky) Women’s Club, directed by Barbara Kopple, 1976
This excellent documentary, directed by Barbara Kopple, focuses on the long, somewhat isolated strike in 1973 by the new United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) local of Brookside, Kentucky coal miners fighting for a union contract against the Eastover Mining Company (a subsidiary of the massive Duke Power Company, the modern equivalent of the old villainous Peabody Mining Company well known in labor circles and in coal country songs). That long strike, the ups and downs of the battles for recognition, the changing tactics on both sides over time, the frustrations of the strikers and their wives and other supporters, and the lessons to be learned for labor militants today are what make this such a compelling and rewarding documentary to view.
That “hot running water and a big old bathtub” caption in the title may need some explaining in post-industrial America, although perhaps not by as many people as one would think. One of the virtues of this documentary is that the participants in the strike and their wives and loved ones get plenty of air time. Thus, we get to hear and see, up close and personal, them express their views, their frustrations during the strike and their hopes for a successful strike and a new contract that will provide enhanced safety standards (notoriously poor throughout the inherently dangerous history of coal mining underground and a central goal of coal miner unions up to the present day), produce more benefits and place the Eastern Kentucky miners on a equal footing with other UMWA miners.
The most poignant expression, as noted above, of that hope was provided by a poor miner’s wife living in a ramshackle old cabin (company-provided, I believe, which is not unusual in coal country) without hot running water or a proper bathtub to her daughter while the daughter was being bathed in a washtub. That, my friends, is what the class struggle meant down at the base then, and, I daresay, now. We politically-oriented labor militants may express that proposition a little more theoretically concise and analytically profuse but I dare anyone who fights for a more just society to say they can express the sense of the struggle down at the base better than that.
And what of the lessons to be learned by today’s labor militants, including today’s coal miners who have lost a great deal of the spirit of their militant history in the last almost forty years since the events depicted in this film occurred. Well, as always, the question posed by the sub-theme that drives the spirit of the struggle in this documentary and as eloquently expressed by the writer of the song in the 1930s when there was also a huge wave of class struggle in the coal fields, Florence Reece - “Which Side Are You On?” After a few minutes of viewing here one should be very clear about that point. Further that, “picket lines mean don’t cross”, a chronic problem during the strike with scabs being sent into the mines by the company daily- a question that repeatedly comes up these days when labor disputes come up as well. And another lesson, not surprisingly, do not trust bourgeois politicians, judges, cop, the pro-capitalist union bureaucracy or anyone else that gets in your way. That is for starters.
Moreover, a strike committee has to be tactically supple, as the heroic work of the Brookside Women’s Club demonstrated when the miners were enjoined from keeping effective picket lines to keep the scabs out. And… well I could go on and on but the best bet is to actually watch this film, and re-watch it because there is plenty to pick up on there. And plenty to make you glad, glad as hell, that you are a labor militant. A retrospective hats off to the 1973 Harlan County, Kentucky coal miners, a place very close to this reviewer’s heart.
Labels: bloody harlan