#Occupy Harlan County

Harlan County, USA is a fascinating, Oscar-winning documentary about a 13-month long coal miners strike in Kentucky in 1973.
It's an important piece of history with regards to labour movements, big corporations and the ongoing struggle against poverty and for a more equitable future-and it's very timely for the current political developments around the globe. The strengths of the documentary are clearly the power of the images (which is intensified by the absence of a narrative voice), the long-term involvement of the film crew with the miners and their families and a story that to some extent sounds somewhat familiar as the #Occupy protests are happening around the globe:

Kopple and her crew spent years with the families depicted in the film, documenting the dire straits they find themselves in while striking for safer working conditions, fair labor practices, and decent wages: following them to picket in front of the stock exchange in New York, filming interviews with people affected by black lung disease, and even catching miners being shot at while striking.

(Picture from the Wikipedia article)

You can watch the trailer here, but there are also full versions of the documentary available on YouTube:

I found the documentary encouraging and depressing to watch at the same time. In the end, the mining company accepts a union contract and more labour disputes in 1974 and 1975 help to improve the situation of coal miners with regards to health and safety, wages or pension plans. My favourite scene is taking place on Wall Street when a protesting miner and a very relaxed policeman start a converation about wages and benefits. The policeman explains that he makes $7/hour as opposed to the miner who makes $5/hour. 'Is your job real dangerous?', the miner asks. 'Look at me. That's what I do', the relaxed policeman explains, 'It's a lot of bullsh@t.' 
But all jokes aside, there are also many depressing moments that made me wonder what really has changed in the past 30-40 years: The huge profits of the mining companies (a figure in the film said mining profits went up 170%, miners' wages up 4% and cost of living went up 7% in 1975), the lack of federal control and enforcement of existing rules and regulations, killing for example 78 miners in the Farmington Mine disaster in 1968, the refusal to admit that black lung disease was caused by inhaling coal dust and a major factor for illnesses or the sometimes intransparent relationships between mining companies and the union(s). The industries may have changed over time, but the overall dynamics sounded freightendly familiar between mining families living in poverty and today's housing crisis and its relationship to the financial markets and industry.

And, as always, there is an interesting development story hidden somewhere. As justified and important as the protests against financial speculations are, the situation of mining companies and local communities deserves more attention. Even if coal mining has all but cease to exist in the States or the EU, I can only wonder what it looks like in China or countries of the CIS. And there are many other aspects of mining, of course, that equally deserve our attention because they have such a big impact on countries and communities and provide staggeringly healthy profits for a a few multinational corporations.
Another great feature of Harlan County are the mining songs...so the question for today still is '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


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