A Brief History of Harlan County, USA

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?

“Which Side Are You On?” became the anthem of a reborn United Mine Workers (UMWA) union in the 1930s, then an anthem for all workers, a reflection of working-class consciousness in the turbulent New Deal years.

Florence Reece wrote the song. She was the daughter of a Kentucky coal miner and married to Sam Reece, an organizer for the radical National Miners Union, then embroiled in the bloody 1931 Harlan County war. There coal miners and union organizers fought the coal bosses for nearly a decade – for the right to have a union in a county where all but three incorporated towns were owned by the coal companies. The number of miners murdered by mine guards remains unknown. Federal soldiers were routinely dispatched to the coal fields in response to what one governor of the state called a “reign of terror.”

“Which Side Are You On?” was written in the immediate aftershock of a midnight raid on her home and her children by Harlan County Sheriff J.H. Blair, in search of her husband.

The 1920s, a decade of defeat for American workers everywhere, left the UMW in a shambles. In 1932, only in anthracite country had the union held its own. In Pennsylvania and Ohio it had collapsed. In the southern Appalachian fields, stretching from West Virginia to Alabama there was no union at all.

The miners’ revival, led by the UMWA, came in the wake of Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1933 and in the belief in only their union might save them. Organizer Garfield Lewis wrote, “The people have been so starved out that they are flocking into the Union by the thousands… I organized 9 Locals Tuesday.” By the end of the year the UMWA was once again the nation’s largest union; it would go on to bankroll the organizing of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the labor upsurge of the ’30s.


It was perhaps the greatest union rebound ever.

Still, the Wall Street bankers and East Coast industrialists who owned the vast seams of the Southern coalfields would not give up without a fight, and Harlan remained “Bloody Harlan.” Armed company guards and sheriff’s deputies patrolled the steep mountains and narrow valleys of the Kentucky Appalachians.

Union members were beaten, their families terrorized. Organizers were shot at, their homes gassed. “Strangers” were kidnapped, then lucky if they were just taken to the county line.

Only late in 1939 did intransigent Harlan coal masters reluctantly sign on with the union. By then a powerful UMWA represented 400,000 working miners, promising safety at work and an escape from the poverty that had consumed generation after generation.


Alas, catastrophe awaited, this time in the booming ’50s. Aging autocrat and UMWA President John L. Lewis agreed to allow the employers a free hand in mechanizing the mines. New machinery would transform underground mining—but at the expense of the coal miners themselves.

In 1959 when Lewis retired, the union had been reduced to 180,000 members, and the southern coalfields, Harlan included, were non-union once again. The union staff, now led by a Montana official, Tony Boyle, encamped in the union offices and rarely ventured into Appalachia, where the depression of the ’30s seemed never to have ended.

Rank-and-file miners responded with a series of wildcat strikes, in 1964, 1966, and 1971, and in 1969 they won the great West Virginia Black Lung Strike, one of the few political strikes in U.S. history. Striking miners in the coalfields of southern West Virginia forced the Republican governor to sign a bill that allowed compensation for black lung disease. Congress then passed a federal bill that assisted all afflicted miners.

In 1969, Tony Boyle was challenged for the UMWA presidency by Jock Yablonski, who promised democracy in the union. Boyle had Yablonski murdered. He hired two drifters in a Cleveland bar and on New Year’s Eve, they murdered Yablonksi, his wife, and his daughter in their beds.

The rank-and-file group Miners for Democracy was organized at the funeral. An MFD victory in the union election followed, and the miners’ movement became an archetype for rank-and-file organizations in the ’70s.

The 1973 UMWA Convention in Pittsburgh was a celebration of workers’ democracy and workers’ power. A 73-year-old Florence Reece attended and led a rousing, emotional rendition of “Which Side Are You On?”


There followed a decade of strikes in the coalfields, often wildcat strikes by some 40,000 young members, many veterans of the war in Vietnam. The new union leadership pledged to organize (or reorganize) the unorganized.

Again, Harlan County took center stage, this time at the Brookside Mine—exposing, again, the poverty of coal country, as well as the vicious indifference to life of the owners, in this case Duke Power.

I visited Harlan in 1974 with a contingent from the British miners’ union. Staff at the Harlan Hotel seemed pleased to show us the bullets still embedded in the failing façade of the aging building. A UMWA organizer who welcomed us displayed a revolver on the dashboard of his car.

The strikers won, but only after 13 months and the murder of a young miner, Lawrence Jones, age 22. The Brookside strike is vividly recounted in Barbara Kopple’s masterpiece, the documentary “Harlan County, USA.”


Today, U.S. coal comes mostly from the Western plains, dug out by huge earth-moving machinery and carried to the coasts on mile-long, dust-spewing trains.

There is still coal in Appalachia, but also deep poverty. The union, with all that it promised, is gone. The mine owners have as little regard as ever for the lives of miners and their families.

The 2010 disaster at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine at Montcoal, West Virginia, cost 29 lives. Managers pleaded guilty to impeding the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s enforcement efforts. CEO Don Blankenship was convicted of willfully violating safety standards stands and spent a year in prison.

Still, there is a spirit that lives in Harlan, along with the ghosts of battles past. On July 1, Blackjewel LLC abruptly shut down its six Harlan mines, filed bankruptcy, and sent the miners home without pay. Miners and their families responded by occupying the railroad tracks to keep the still-loaded trains from carrying coal away till they were paid. The local community rallied behind them.

The question is back: “Which Side Are You On?”

Cal Winslow is the author of Radical Seattle: the General Strike of 1919. He can be reached at winslow@mcn.org