Some of us are familiar with the FX original series Justified, which stars Timothy Olyphant and a host of other talented actors and actresses. This modern western partially takes place in Harlan County, Kentucky where oxy-dealing outlaws face off against U.S. Marshals. Much of the drama (at least in season two) revolves around the coal mining industry and the local coal miners. And as we are constantly reminded by Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, he and the main antagonist “dug coal together.”
However, not many people know that in the 1930s Harlan County became a battleground for striking miners and the private guards that the coal companies hired.
During the great depression, Harlan County coal companies attempted to widen national coal dependency by selling below cost. To prevent a loss during this period the Harlan County Coal Operators’ Association cut miners’ wages by 10%. The United Mine Workers of America (UMW) attempted to organize the miners in a county wide strike. Initially, miners who were known to have been members of unions were fired immediately by coal companies. However, they soon gained sympathy from their fellow miners and the remaining miner struck in solidarity. At the height of the first strike, 5800 miners were inactive and only 900 miners were working. Those who continued to work (“scabs”) were protected by gun thugs, hired by the mining companies, who operated under Sheriff J.H. Blair. Blair is featured in the folk song ‘Which Side Are You On?’ by Florence Reece, whose husband Sam was one of the union leaders.
In response to the violence, striking miners took to arming themselves and were not above inciting violence and scabbing miners were beaten on several occasions. The most violent unprovoked attack by mine workers occurred on May 5, 1931, and became known as the Battle of Evarts, in which three company men and one miner were killed and not for the last time, the Kentucky National Guard was called in.
On May 24 a union rally was tear-gassed, and Sheriff Blair rescinded county members’ right to assemble. By June 17, the last mine had returned to work.
Under the National Industrial Recovery Act, which promoted the right to organize one’s workplace and outlawed discrimination and firing based on union membership, approximately half of Harlan’s coal mines, those in the Harlan County Coal Operators’ Association, were run as open shops (allowing union membership, but not mandating it) from October 27, 1933 – March 31, 1935.
While the NRA (National Recovery Administration) had been almost useless in Harlan, the Wagner Act of 1935 ended up being a larger threat to Harlan County’s mine operations. It outlawed yellow-dog contracts, company unions, blacklists, and discrimination on basis of union activity, which were all strategies used by coal companies to weed out the union men.
While coal mining strikes are becoming less frequent in the 21st century it’s always important to remember the experiences of workers in the 1930s that lead to modern legislation that protects unions.
Now, people battle with coal companies over environmental issues, especially in West Virginia.
For further information:
About Harlan County mining:
2. “Harlan County, USA” a Academy-Award winning documentary from 1977 about the Brookside Strike of 1973.
Coal and the environment:
“The Last Mountain” (2011) a documentary about mountain top removal in West Virginia.