which side are you on?
In the 1920s miners were joining unions in increasing numbers– for the most part they joined the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) led by John L. Lewis at the time. In most places as soon as miners joined they were blacklisted by mine operators and evicted from their company homes. That is what happened in eastern Kentucky in 1931 when mine operators locked out workers for voting to unionize. Locked out and evicted miners were not making money to feed their families and there was no one to provide aid to them. There were no state or federal safety nets back then.
On May 5, 1931 the pot boiled over; in Harlan County Kentucky, heavily armed deputies and company men, called “gun thugs” by miners, confronted disgruntled union men on a road near Evarts. The coal miners, lean and tough from Kentucky mountain life, knew how to fight back. No one knows who fired the first shot but when it was over four were dead—three deputies and one miner– with several more wounded. The next day soldiers entered Harlan to end the violence. The troops quickly joined forces with local rulers and commenced strikebreaking activities. By June the strike was over; union leaders were banished from the mines and 44 men stood trial.
Public out-cry when events became known nationally led a group of authors, including Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos, to visit the area to report on conditions. Under pressure the Governor later admitted:
“there exists a virtual reign of terror (in Harlan County), financed in general by a group of coal mine operators in collusion with certain public officials: the victims of this reign of terror are the coal miners and their families… a monster-like reign of oppression whose tentacles reached into the very foundation of the social structure and even into the Church of god… the homes of union miners and organizers were dynamited and fired into… It appears that the principal cause of existing conditions is the desire of the mine owners to amass for themselves fortunes through the oppression of their laborers, which they do through the sheriff’s office.”
Sadly, Harlan County’s troubles persisted through most of the 1930s, still known throughout the region as the “Bloody Harlan” years. In fact Harlan’s Depression-era struggle turned out to be one of the most bitter and protracted labor disputes in American history. The decade-long conflict between miners and the coal operators who adamantly resisted unionization was violent– miners (13) and gun thugs lost their lives.
The Harlan County class war provided the inspiration for Florence Reece‘s “Which Side Are You On?” In it she captured the spirit of her times with blunt eloquence:
Come all you good workers, Good news to you I’ll tell Of how the good old union Has come in here to dwell.
CHORUS: Which side are you on? Which side are you on? Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
My dady was a miner, And I’m a miner’s son, And I’ll stick with the union ‘Til every battle’s won.
They say in Harlan County There are no neutrals there. You’ll either be a union man Or a thug for J. H. Blair.
Oh workers can you stand it? Oh tell me how you can? Will you be a lousy scab Or will you be a man?
Don’t scab for the bosses, Don’t listen to their lies. Us poor folks haven’t got a chance Unless we organize.
As long as a single ton of recoverable coal remains underneath the surface of eastern Kentucky men and their families will likely be exploited to mine it.
Note: in 1973-74 another long bitter strike transpired at Harlan’s Brookside mine when the Duke Power Company refused to sign a UMWA contract. The strike, which is documented in the award winning movie “Harlan County USA“, also led to bloodshed. The documentary is excellent.
Day, John. Bloody Ground. Lexington, KY, 1981.
Edith Fowke and Joe Glazer. Songs of Work and Protest. New York, NY, 1973.
Filippelli, Ronald, ed. Labor Conflict in the USA: an Encyclopedia. New York, NY, 1990