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Harlan County, USA is an Oscar-winning 1976 documentary film covering the “Brookside Strike”, an effort of 180 coal miners and their wives against the Duke Power Company-owned Eastover Coal Company’s Brookside Mine and Prep Plant in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1973. 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 (or lack thereof). 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 strike breakers and others hired by the company show up early in the film — the strikers call them “gun thugs” — the company people try to keep their guns hidden from the camera. As the strike drags on for nearly a year, both sides eventually openly brandish their weapons.
Kopple also relays statistics about the companies and the workers to support the strikers, such as the fact that Duke Power Company’s profits increased 170 percent in a single year. Meanwhile, the striking miners, many of whom are living in squalid conditions without utilities like running water, received a 4% pay increase despite an estimated 7% cost of living increase for that same year.
Joseph Yablonski was a passionate, populist union representative who was loved by many of the miners. Yablonski challenged W.A. “Tony” 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. Tony Boyle is shown early in the film in good health. Later he is seen frail, sickly and using 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.
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