Harlan County, KY, coal miners win affiliation with UMWA union, United States, 1973-1974

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Timing
Time Period:  
26 July
1973
to
29 August
1974
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Brookside, Harlan County, Kentucky
Goals: 
The right to form a local of the United Mine Workers (UMW) union.
 

In June of 1973, workers at the Brookside coal mine in Harlan County, Kentucky voted 113-55 to replace their membership in the Southern Labor Union (SLU) and join the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union. The SLU was largely seen as serving the interests of the mine owners rather than the workers.

The owners of the mine, Eastover Coal Company, a subsidiary of Duke Power Company, refused to sign the new contracts, which would have established a UMWA local in Brookside.

After a month of negotiations with no success, the 180 miners walked off the job and began what would be a 13-month-long strike on 26 July 1973.

The main goal of the strike was the right of the workers to form a union as part of the UMWA. In doing so, they would also ensure two secondary objectives: establishing a worker's Safety Committee and increased hospital and medical benefits. The workers' salaries were comparable with other miners throughout the country, so the issue of salary was not addressed. Along with opposing the UMWA union, Eastover management also wanted a 'no-strike' clause to be included in any final contract.

Eastover and Duke brought in replacement workers at the beginning of the strike. The replacement workers often drove through the picket lines, injuring the striking workers. Eastover also hired prisoners to 'provide security' in and around the mine. Some of these prisoners had been convicted of serious crimes including manslaughter and homicide.

Throughout the strike, the campaigners set up picket lines to try to prevent replacement workers from working at the coal mine. This was partially successful until County Judge F. Byrd Hogg, a mine owner himself, issued an injunction against the miners allowing only 3 people to picket at each of the two entrances to the mine. Several men were arrested for violating the injunction and were sentenced to three months in prison.

Women of the community responded to Judge Bogg's injunction. The wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the striking miners created the Brookside Women's Club (BWC) on 27 September 1973. Rather than see 'their men' imprisoned, they volunteered to staff the picket lines. They believed that the strikebreakers would be more hesitant to use violence against women.

The BWC had nearly 100 members. They maintained the picket lines, stopped traffic by moving their cars into the road or laying down in the road, heckled scabs, and at times were arrested for their actions.

The women were repeatedly assaulted and shot at. Although largely nonviolent, the BWC made no commitment to nonviolent discipline. Several members stabbed a local sheriff when he dragged a woman violently off the road on 28 February 1974.

The strikers made bumper stickers supporting their cause and drove around the community in a truck with loudspeakers to explain their grievances and hopefully gain support. UMWA itself assisted in larger actions. The union organized a divestment campaign, "Dump Duke," in which people were encouraged to sell any stock in Duke Power Company in May of 1974. The UMWA also organized a march outside of Duke headquarters in North Carolina.

Throughout the campaign, strikers and supporters sang songs such as "Which Side Are You On?" written by Florence Reece in 1931 during strikes that earned the community the name 'Bloody Harlan.'

Violence continued against the workers and community. The strikers reported attempted bribery to denounce the union, being shot at numerous times, having dynamite thrown at them, shots fired into their homes, and constant verbal threats. The 'security guards' and local police often physically removed people from the picket line in order to let cars pass.

By the end of the campaign the miners had been subjected to over 90 arrests and 40 acts of violence.

The strikers were not themselves entirely nonviolent. Those on the picket line shouted insults at the replacement workers and some even carried weapons. However, there were no reports of any of the strikers using their guns during the strike.

Negotiations continued during the strike, but they reached an impasse on 28 November 1973. Both sides filed complaints with the National Labor Review Board (NLRB) accusing the other side of bargaining in bad faith.

On 30 April 1974, the NLRB sided with the workers but no specific action was taken. The NLRB Administrative Law Judge, Manrice Bush, concluded, "From the record as a whole, I find and conclude that Eastover deliberately insisted on the nonacceptable no strike clause for the purpose of avoiding coming to terms with the Respondent union on any kind of collective bargaining agreement."

Another factor in the strike was the presence of Barbara Kopple, a journalist who made a documentary Harlan County, USA about the struggle. Her presence, and the presence of her video camera, is believed to be a factor in decreasing the violence used against the strikers.

In March of 1974, the UMWA invited an independent group to investigate the strike. The Citizens Public Inquiry into the Brookside Strike, funded not by UMWA but by the Marshall Field Foundation, was composed of 11 prominent people, including Willard Wirtz, Secretary of Labor under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Fred Harris, a former US Senator, and members of academic, religious, and community groups. The group met with approximately 50 members of the community and toured the area. They had invited executives from Duke Power and Eastover Mining to meet with them, but they refused.

On 24 August 1974 a mine supervisor named Billy C. Bruner shot and killed a 23-year-old striker, Lawrence D. Jones. The death shocked the community and received widespread attention throughout the nation.

The killing was a turning point. Shortly after Jones' death, 29 August 1974, the Eastover Mining Company offered a contract to the striking workers.

Shortly after the end of the strike, the UMW faced another national obstacle when their contracts across the country expired. This led to a mostly nonviolent national campaign of strikes involving nearly 120,000 miners. Within 3 weeks a tentative deal had been reached between the UMW and the majority of mine owners.

Research Notes
Sources: 
Braden, M. (1973, November, 09). Nonviolent picketing comes to Harlan mine. Daily News (Bowling Green, Kentucky). Retrieved from: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=iyQqAAAAIBAJ&sjid=pEYEAAAAIBAJ&pg=7123%2C1226450

Click, K. (2007). Liberalism and Democracy in post-reform America: The Women of the Brookside strike of 1974. Conference Papers -- National Communication Association, 1.

Cowan, P. (1974, May, 09). The power & the shame. The Village Voice. Retrieved from: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=aNpHAAAAIBAJ&sjid=CowDAAAAIBAJ&dq=harlan%20coal%20strike%201973&pg=6346%2C2744859

Kopple, B. (Producer & Director). (1976). Harlan County, USA. [Documentary Film]. United States: First Run Features.

Franklin, B.A. (1973, November, 18). Miners continue Kentucky strike. New York Times. Retrieved from: ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Klemesrud, J. (1974, May, 15). Coal miners started the strike - Then their women took over. New York Times. Retrieved from: ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Maggard, Sally Ward. (1987). Women's participation in the Brookside coal strike: Militance, class, and gender in Appalachia. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 9 (3), pp 16-21.

Moody, J.P. (1974, September, 02). Time to think of coal strike consequences. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved from: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=40MNAAAAIBAJ&sjid=XW0DAAAAIBAJ&pg=5364%2C123125

N/A. (1974, August, 02). Bloody Harlan once again. Workers Vanguard. Retrieved from: http://www.scribd.com/doc/123109340/Workers-Vanguard-No-50-2-August-1974

N/A. (1974, August, 04). 'Friendly neighborhood power company' is under fire. The Spartanburg Herald-Journal. Retrieved from: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=pz4sAAAAIBAJ&sjid=C80EAAAAIBAJ&pg=7062%2C939165

Oral History Interview with Daniel H. Pollitt, April 17, 1991. Interview L-0064-9. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Orr, S.C. (1974, May, 27). Kentucky coal mine strike seen as test of new leadership. Observer-Reporter (Washington, PA). Retrieved from: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=xipmAAAAIBAJ&sjid=S3cNAAAAIBAJ&pg=803%2C4253999

Raum, T. (1974, August, 30). Coal strike ends; union shifts its attention. The Day. Retrieved from http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=r-sgAAAAIBAJ&sjid=-HEFAAAAIBAJ&pg=2700%2C4785742

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
David W. Gethings, 24/04/2013