‘Harlan County, USA’ Is More Relevant Than Ever During COVID-19

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While Occupy Wall Street wasn’t exactly a labor strike, it was one of my first experiences of collective action. Seeing almost every city in the country demanding acknowledgement of income inequality is something that will stick with me for the rest of my life. It’s the reason why, in the heat of this pandemic, I’ve supported the Black Lives Matter protests, the #CancelRent protest, and the eviction defenses going on in my neighborhood of Crown Heights. I even have ancestors who participated in the strikes that led to the creation of Labor Day in the first place, at the beginning of the 20th century. That’s why it was thrilling to see the culture of labor power depicted in Harlan County, U.S.A; from my position in the America of 2020 it’s a world that can only be imagined, but that is well worth imagining.

Harlan County, U.S.A. is scored by folk songs sung by Harlan County coal miners and their families; these ballads are mournful, bluesy, and contemplative, and unlike many country or bluegrass songs of today they are unequivocally in support of labor unions. Lyrics like “they always on the picket line, they always on the picket line” and “feels dark as a dungeon, down in the mine” articulate the class struggle that the coal miners are going through. The presence of labor themes in folk songs speaks to how deeply the community of Harlan County are invested in their collective resistance to the Duke Power company. The well-known ballad “which side are you on?” puts forward the crucial question that so many people manage not to give a straight answer to.

An old miner who has given decades to working for Duke Power tells the story of his first strike, at age 10. His job back then was to pick out bits of slate from the coal being funneled out of the mine. He tells the camera clearly that he learned during that strike never to trust politicians, priests, or even union leaders during a strike–they were all sent to dissuade him and his fellow strikers to take the pressure off the company, despite claiming to be on their side. In the end this old miner stuck to his guns along with his fellow child laborers, and they won 2 extra cents per hour–a significant win for such work at that time.

Gender issues are also strongly present in this class struggle–the women of Harlan County are among the most vociferous members of the strike. Probably because their husbands are busy working 18 to 20 hours a day under the supervision of company foremen, the wives of Harlan County seem to be some of the central organizers and spokespeople for the strike. Indeed, the fiercest words spoken in support of the strike come from women–both to the press, to their fellow working class members, and even to their children, to whom they pass on their knowledge of collective action.

The way these women see themselves as important and central figures in their own lives and in the economy of their town belies the idea that they are simply homemakers confined to the domestic sphere. Rather than having no business outside the home, the women of Harlan County spend the time when their husbands are away preparing for battle with the company and supporting each other through the hard times of the strike. And it makes perfect sense–it’s their husbands that are dying of black lung; why wouldn’t they care? For indeed, one last point that resonated was the paid experts who testified in a hearing covered in Harlan County who claimed that coal miners were not at risk for black lung disease.

From the perspective of 2020, this kind of collective action is a clarion call to arms. In the present day, labor power has been chipped away not just on the economic and political level, but also on the social level. Propaganda on the part of the right wing has reached such a level that union power is at an all time low in the United States, and collective labor power in general has also waned. I know that several of my own relatives who might have been enthusiastic labor advocates in the days of Harlan County, U.S.A. are now Fox News advocates instead. The idea that unions do nothing but secure perks for special interests has kept people from avoiding the same abuse that the miners in Harlan County are trying to stop. Worse, companies like Amazon are making the 21st century’s working class face new and more dehumanizing working conditions, with some of the most stringent anti-labor policies in history.

This is hardly just abstract politics for me–the number of people I know in New York City who don’t have a choice whether or not to go to work during the coronavirus is a clear sign that we’re in just as bad a position now as the coal miners in Harlan County. The risk of COVID-19 and the risk of black lung have both been forced on the working class of the United States, and the answer to both these abuses of power by capital is collective action.

© FF2 Media Giorgi Plys-Garzotto (9/16/20)

Top Photo: Archival footage of the coal miners striking.

Middle Photo: Organizers planning the strike.

Bottom Photo: The strike headquarters.

Photo Credit: Barbara Kopple.

Tags: ff2media, TCM, WomenMakeFilm

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Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
Giorgi Plys-Garzotto is a journalist and copywriter living in Brooklyn. She especially loves writing about queer issues, period pieces, and the technical aspects of films.
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