Which Side Are You On

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Which Side Are You On?

Song lyrics

By: Florence Reece

Date: 1931

Source: Reece, Florence. "Which Side Are You On?" Stormking Music, 1933.

About the Author: Florence Reece (1900–1986), the wife of a coal miner and organizer for the National Miner's Union in Harlan County, Kentucky, wrote "Which Side Are You On?" in 1931 during an especially violent strike. She penned the song after Harlan County deputies ransacked her home in search of her husband.


Of the many songs born out of labor strife in America's coal mines, Florence Reece's classic 1931 union song, "Which Side Are You On?" is one of the best known. Written in response to a violent strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, the song roused people across the nation in support of the right to organize. It ultimately helped the Wagner Act pass into law.

In the spring of 1931, during the Great Depression, coal miners suffered dangerous conditions and low pay in Harlan County. The pay of the miners had been slashed repeatedly by the mine owners, who also fired thousands of workers. In desperation, the miners contacted the small United Mine Workers (UMW) and began to organize. They were opposed by the local Coal Operators' Association and local law enforcement. The strike soon became one of the most violent labor episodes of the 1930s. The coal companies responded harshly by immediately evicting thousands of miners from their company-owned homes. On May 5, 1931, one hundred armed miners engaged in open warfare with company guards in a skirmish that left one miner and three company men dead. Hundreds of state troopers then arrived to halt the conflict and the UMW declared that the Harlan County miners were on their own. Still seeking to organize, the miners turned to the National Miners' Union (NMU), a group that was supported by the Communist Party.

Florence Reece, the wife of a rank-and-file organizer for the NMU in Harlan County, was at home one day in 1931 when Sheriff J. H. Blair and several of his deputies broke into her cabin to search for her husband. (Known to the workers as "thugs," most of the deputies were mine guards who were still being paid by mine owners, as Blair later admitted.) As her young daughters cried, the police poked their rifles into closets, under beds, and into piles of dirty clothes before finally leaving. A furious Reece then tore a calendar off the wall and wrote "Which Side Are You On?" She set the lyrics to the tune of an old Baptist hymn. "Lay the Lily Low."


"Which Side are You On?"

Come all of you good workers,
Good news to you I'll tell,
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell.
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
My daddy was a miner,
And I'm a miner's son,
And I'll stick with the union,
Till 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.


"Which Side Are You On?" became an anthem of the labor movement. Various labor activists, such as Pete Seeger, picked up the song and changed its lyrics to fit their situation. The song eventually passed over from the union movement to the civil rights movement. In 1961, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) leader James Farmer revised the lyrics to suit the circumstances in the South during the Freedom Rides. Whenever CORE members perceived that other African Americans were betraying the cause, they sang Reece's song. In 1965, the song inspired marchers for voting rights at Selma, Alabama. It has outlived Reece, who died in 1986 at her home in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Unionism finally came to Harlan County in May 1933 when 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 had signed their first collective bargaining agreement with the coal operators.

For people around the country, Harlan County came to demonstrate the limits of company paternalism. In times of trouble, the coal companies abandoned the miners. The episode in Kentucky, publicized so well by Reece's song, helped pave the way for the Wagner Act of 1935. This legislation, among the most significant for labor in American history, guaranteed workers the right to organize and created a legal process for obtaining recognition of the union as the representative of workers.



Hevenor, John W. Which Side Are You on?: The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931–39. Urbana. Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1978.

Taylor, Paul F. Bloody Harlan: The United Mine Workers of America in Harlan County, Kentucky, 1931–1941. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1990.

Wooley, Bryan. When the Morning Comes. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1975.