Harlan County War: women as workingclass soldiers

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We could win this strike,” says the character Ruby to the women of Brookside, Kentucky, whose husbands had been forced off the picket line by a court injunction. “We’ve always stood behind our husbands. Now we can stand instead of them.”

It isn’t often you jump up in the middle of a movie and shout “right on” – especially if the cheers are for women organizers, who are almost always rendered invisible in celluloid depictions of labor strikes.

But thanks to the Showtime TV network, hurrahs are in order for Harlan County War, based on a 13-month coal miners’ strike in the early 1970s and inspired by Barbara Kopple’s 1976 Oscar-winning documentary, Harlan County, USA.

The day after I saw the movie, I was supporting striking Kaiser steelworkers on a frigid, rainy picket line in Tacoma, Washington. Some of the women there had also caught the film, and grinned in delight, because a struggle they felt to be theirs had gotten mainstream screen time.

A giant step for miners.Harlan County War tells the true story of 180 families fed up with surviving on $1.89 per hour, with no health and disability benefits. Death tolls because of mining accidents reached 300 a year at the time, and black lung disease killed many more.

The workers were pitted against Duke Power Company, sixth largest utility in the country, which refused to sign a contract with the United Mine Workers (UMW). In the time-honored tradition of fuel barons, the utility was hell bent to break the strike through lies, intimidation, home evictions, violence against those who walked out and their families, collusion with the courts and cops, and outright murder.

Incited by a nearly fatal accident the day before, the men struck with the sense of pride that comes from taking a stand. What they couldn’t foresee is that their wives and sisters and mothers and grandmothers would play a decisive role in solidifying the strike, building the new union local, and beating Duke Power.

Women to the front. Soon after the strike began, a judge who was also a major stockholder in Duke Power issued an injunction that limited the picketing to three mine workers at a time.

“You can’t win a strike with three men on the picket line,” declared Ruby (Holly Hunter), the movie’s composite version of several intrepid wives. So the women picketed while their spouses, at first grudgingly, shouldered the home front.

The tension and caring involved in this political/domestic revolution is sensitively reflected by Ruby’s husband (Ted Levine) as he braids his daughter’s hair on the steps of their company-owned home and worries about his wife on the picket line.

As the company’s gun thugs get violent and police jail women and young people for blocking scabs, husband and wife exchange angry shouts and then clutch each other. “I’m scared,” he says, “scared that I can’t work again, scared I can’t feed the kids.”

“And I’m scared,” she responds, “scared you’re going to die, scared our kids are going to grow up without hope.”

This film is refreshingly unlike Norma Rae, the movie about a fictional textile strike in which the husband plays a lout and the union rep a subtle Lothario. Harlan County War portrays respect and political growth in young Ruby’s relationship with her spouse and with the UMW organizer.

At a public stockholders’ meeting, Ruby indicts the whole company: “My daddy said coal mining was his life. But it really was his death … because you don’t want to slow down production.” Later, stung by condescending remarks from a union lawyer, Ruby threatens to walk away. But the UMW organizer protests, “Ruby, you’re one of the strongest people I’ve ever met.

No “nice” way to win. Back to the line the women go, recruiting retired mining veterans from the bloody Harlan County strike of the 1930s. The company gets meaner, evicting strikers from their homes, shooting at the picket line, beating picketers with clubs. Jailed again and falsely accused of “being violent,” the women decide to fight fire with fire. Next morning, they bring baseball bats to defend themselves – and successfully do just that, driving off the scabs and their police protectors.

Then one night a striker is shot in the back and killed. The next morning, when armed police try to escort scabs into the mines, the women and their husbands lift their guns and refuse to move. The company and cops back off, and workers sign a contract shortly thereafter.

What a joy! The story got told. And now we have one more movie in the fine tradition of Salt of the Earth. A reenactment of the 17-month Empire Mine strike in New Mexico during the early 1950s, Salt of the Earth vividly conveys how that strike, too, depended on the miners’ wives, mostly Chicanas, for victory.
Together, these films make a fine beginning in unearthing the honorable history of women’s crucial contributions to the U.S. labor movement.

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