Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman’s “Blood on the Mountains” is a searing indictment of the coal industry’s war on the people of Appalachia. But beyond its story of regional devastation, this stirring documentary is a template of class struggle across America.
Evans and Freeman track the development of the coal industry, nicely framing the main issues and players as they roll out their woeful tale. In the late 19th century, cheap abundant coal fueled the United States’ industrial growth. Because this resource was located in rural areas, nascent coal companies were able to steer development.
They could structure every aspect of the companies’ composition and of their workers lives. Coal barons were able to shape this system in part because of the remoteness of mines from population centers and the failure of corrupt local and weak, remote federal governments.
Company towns, company stores, company doctors and company social centers were built around the mines so that workers could labor from dawn to dark non-stop. Having life’s necessities nearby meant less work interruption. The companies’ ownership of these necessities – housing, food, health care and even social outlets – bound the workforce to those who owned the means of production.
When the workforce rebelled, reformed or sought changes like higher wages, better working conditions or improved safety, company owners stifled change using private police or security forces to clamp down on rebellious workers.
Often company towns were in areas outside the jurisdiction of public police. Mining enterprises commonly hired their own security forces. Life was cheap not only in the mines but at the hands of those that were supposed to enforce laws.
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