Harlan County USA

Harlan County USA

In June 1973 the coal miners at Brookside, Kentucky voted to join the United Mineworkers of America. When the Eastover Mining Company refused to grant the United Mineworkers union recognition, a strike began which was to last 13 long months. This documentary tries to situate the strike within the history of miners’ struggles in the Appalachians and within more recent efforts to democratize the union.


Harlan County, USA; that was my first ever film that I did on my own. I worked on other people’s films doing sound and editing, but this for me was the very first. I started doing the during the time of Miners for Democracy. Arnold Miller won the Miners for Democracy and his first promise was to ‘organize the unorganized.’ In the early ‘70s in Harlan County, Kentucky, which had always been a place where you live and you die by your gun, they also had ‘Bloody Harlan County’ where people had fought for the right to have a union and many people died. An incredible woman named Florence Reece wrote a song called ‘Which Side Are You On?’ and it pertains to almost every single struggle, whether it’s a labor struggle or something else. Sometimes the verses have been changed, but she wrote that song. She also sang it in the ‘70s in Harlan County. [sings] ‘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?’ That was the original.”

Barbara Kopple1


Harlan County USA is a powerful documentary of a long and brave struggle. But it also shows the lack of theoretical foundations in the American labour movement. The underlying assumption seems to be that if the coal operators were simply more humane and recognised the workers’ “constitutional rights as American citizens’’ all would be well. There is no recognition that the American capitalist system may be at fault or that the mineWorkers of America have anything in common with other members of the working class. Their oppression is seen to flow from only one source - the mine owners and operators. The role of the state, and the church, indeed the whole system, is barely acknowledged.

This is all disturbing enough but in addition even latent feminism is absent at Brookside. The Harlan County women are shown as brave and forthright and it is fair to say that without their support the strike would have been lost. Their physical presence on picket lines, their arguments with judges and sheriffs, their arrests, their emotional support, and indeed their film, are all crucial. But these correct and courageous actions are almost entirely based on pure self-sacrificing principles. They have no independent demands and little awareness of their own particularly oppressed state as women.

The women may have won the strike at Harlan County hit both they and the United Mineworkers of America are in desperate need of political consciousness raising. Only then can past victories be firmly consolidated and future struggles more easily won.”

Kerry Schott2

  • 1Todd Melby, “Barbara Kopple discusses ‘Harlan County USA’,” The Drunk Projectionist, September 2018.
  • 2Kerry Schott, “Harlan County USA,” Spare Rib Magazine, July 1978.
UPDATED ON 12.04.2023