Harlan County, Kentucky, is a rural county located in a major coal-mining region in the Appalachian Mountains. The county became nationally famous in 1931 and 1932 when it was the site of one of the earliest and bloodiest labor battles of the decade. The desperation and the courage of the miners of Harlan County, and the violent repression visited upon them by the coal operators of the region when they attempted to organize a union, attracted national attention.
Most of the miners in Harlan County were local people, with deep roots in the Appalachian countryside. By contrast, the coal operators were primarily absentee owners. There was virtually no other industry in the region. The result was that the coal operators tightly controlled the Appalachian communities. They owned the houses in which the miners lived, the stores from which they bought food, and even the funeral homes that would bury them when they died. The miners, however, shared an intense local culture, giving them a measure of political independence from the coal operators.
When the Great Depression hit the coal fields, the paternalism that had characterized coal town life vanished. Coal operators slashed wages and fired thousands of miners. Workers contacted the United Mine Workers (UMW), which was at that time a fragile organization with low membership, and started to organize. The first mass meetings were held in February and March of 1931. The companies responded harshly, immediately evicting thousands of miners from their homes. In April, 2,800 men, women, and children from Harlan County marched into town and demanded money and food from the company. Strikes spread through the coal fields. On May 5, one hundred armed miners engaged in open warfare with company deputies in a skirmish that left one miner and three company men dead. Hundreds of state troopers arrived to quell the conflict, and the UMW, overwhelmed, declared that the miners were on their own. Even though over 11,000 miners joined the union in the spring organizing drive, the UMW did not have the institutional resources to provide strike relief.
Still seeking to organize, the miners turned to the National Miners' Union, a group that was supported by the Communist Party. The National Miners' Union attempted to organize a strike beginning in the first days of January 1932. On the eve of the strike, two miners were shot and killed, and in the days that followed, organizers were arrested and more people were killed. One 19-year-old organizer who had come from New York was murdered; his body was sent back to New York and thousands of people marched in a funeral procession from Penn Station to Union Square. But under the repression of the coal operators and their deputies, the strike fell apart.
Unionism finally came to Harlan County in May 1933, when section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act recognized the legal right of workers to organize unions. The UMW organized the coal mines in a matter of months. By autumn of 1933, the workers signed their first collective bargaining agreement with the coal operators.
One of the most important things about Harlan County is that it attracted national attention to the plight of the coal miners, much as the civil rights demonstrations of the early 1960s brought the injustice of segregation to the awareness of the nation. In late 1931, novelist Theodore Dreiser and a team of writers came down to report on (as Dreiser put it) "terrorism in the Kentucky coalfields." And during the strike, writer Waldo Frank organized an "Independent Miners Relief Committee" to bring food to the miners. Busloads of northern college students came South to support the miners, handing out food and copies of the Bill of Rights. Florence Reece's song, "Which Side Are You On?" also served to spread the word about the conflict, and became a lasting favorite of labor and civil rights activists.
For people around the country, the Harlan County uprising of the early 1930s demonstrated the limits of the company paternalism and welfare capitalism of the 1920s. In this way, it helped pave the way for the Wagner Act of 1935, which guaranteed workers the right to organize and created a legal process for attaining union recognition. The northern writers and organizers who told the story of Harlan County to the rest of the country helped to cast union organization as American and democratic, and the actions of the companies as tyrannical, violent, and arbitrary. Finally, the ultimate victory of the miners showed that even under the most difficult conditions, in the most rural communities, workers could organize and win union representation. The mineworkers' union, with its stronghold in Harlan County and Appalachia, would remain a powerful force in the United States throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and the entire postwar era.
Dreiser, Theodore, et al. Harlan Miners Speak: Report on Terrorism in the Kentucky Coal Fields. 1932.
Gaventa, John. Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. 1980.
Hevener, John W. Which Side Are You On? The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931–39. 1978.
Kopple, Barbara, director and producer. Harlan County, U.S.A. 1976.
Taylor, Paul F. Bloody Harlan: The United Mine Workers of America in Harlan County, Kentucky, 1931–1941. 1990.