This influential documentary tells the story of a group of underdog coal workers who unionized in the early 1970s. Before long, they walked out of their Eastern Kentucky mines and led a year-long strike for safer conditions and better pay.
I was predisposed to root for the striking miners. By the end, I wasn’t rooting for anything. The movie turned me off, intellectually and emotionally.
Documentarian Barbara Kopple is plainly and passionately on the side of the miners. Unfortunately for her cause, though, she lets them speak for themselves.
Multiple strikers state that they are fighting for their “constitutional rights.” That is astonishingly ignorant.
First off, the Constitution says nothing about the relationship between management and labor. And thank goodness it doesn’t! The Founding Fathers were masters of nation-building, but they were notoriously bad at respecting the dignity of laborers.
If anything, our founding documents are the work of rich guys who are eager to protect their own property rights against the tyranny of the majority.
To be fair, I don’t expect coal miners to be great scholars. But I also didn’t expect them to be so hateful.
As the strike drags on, the energy company unsurprisingly hires other guys to work the mines. But we certainly don’t get to meet any of them in “Harlan County USA.” Everyone interviewed simply dismisses them as “scabs.”
And the way they say “scabs” gave me a chill. If a viewer didn’t know what the word meant, you might have thought from the context that “scab” means “pedophile.”
Look, I certainly understand why Union strikers are not happy that other men are doing their jobs – it weakens their bargaining position. However, that is no excuse for hating and dehumanizing their neighbors. And no excuse for barricading major roads to prevent workers from driving to the mine (and other people from visiting their elderly parents. And other people from taking their sick cat to the vet).
For what is a “scab?” He is a worker who chooses to mine coal for money so that Americans can have electricity and steel. The only tiny, tiny difference between him and the striking unionist is his attitude about labor collectivism.
I say “tiny;” but to be fair, we don’t know the actual difference. Barbara Kopple never tells us what the strikers’ demands are. More money is implied. But how much more? Fewer mine accidents and protection against black lung is implied. But how?
Kopple’s decision to leave out the details of the labor demands and negotiations is not an oversight. Like Marx, Kopple is not impressed by little victories and incremental gains. She just loves the process. The process of organizing. The process of unionizing. The process of perpetual picketing in an eternal war against big bad businessmen.
To me, the months of striking looked miserable and dehumanizing. To Barbara Kopple, it was romantic. That is why she pauses every five minutes to play an excerpt from a union folk song. Each song is emotional, passionate, manipulative … and derails the substance and flow of the film.
“Harlan County USA” is a convincing movie. Going in, I was solidly in favor of private sector unions and assumed that they were mostly a force of good in our world. Now I might be slightly anti-union.