Bloody Harlan: Which Side Are You On?
The Harlan County Coal Wars were a series of violent disputes over the rights of coal miners to unionize with the United Mine Workers of America.
Our Bloody Harlan “Which Side Are You On?” t-shirt commemorates this story and poses the eternal question, which side are you on?
At the beginning of the Great Depression, Harlan County was one of America’s most anti-union areas, and when mine owners slashed wages, the miners went on strike. Over almost a decade of intermittent strikes, battles, and occupations, miners organized themselves and battled deputized private detectives and the National Guard. They faced an implacable enemy in the Sheriff, J. H. Blair, who was eventually voted out of office in favor of a pro-Union candidate. Eventually, Federal Labor Laws were put into place that forced the mines to allow unions.
The miners’ struggle became famous throughout the nation and saw a birth of cultural production both within and outside the community of miners. Florence Reece, the wife of an organizer, famously chronicled the conflict in the song “Which Side Are You On?” In this song, which became a classic of the labor movement, she mixed specific elements of the Harlan situation (“You’ll either be a Union man or a thug for J. H. Blair…”) with appeals to all the workers of the world (“Us poor folks haven’t got a chance, unless we organize…”). The song was spread by Pete Seeger, and reworked for new occasions. During the Civil Rights Movement, a verse was added by a choir affiliated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: “Come all you Negro people, lift up your voices and sing / Will you join the Ku Klux Klan or Martin Luther King?” We believe that the question is the same for us, and that on every issue we are forced to decide which side we are on.
While the period of Bloody Harlan ended in victory for the miners, this did not last. Since then, the mining communities have struggled even as the coal companies have destroyed the environment and raked in money. Later labor struggles in Harlan were chronicled in books and movies, like the 1976 movie Harlan County, USA, which chronicles a strike from several years earlier. In 2019, the miners of Harlan County waged a heroic last action--after the mining company went bankrupt, they were going to be denied their health benefits and pensions. They blockaded the last shipment of coal from leaving, and forced the company to give them some, but not all, of what they were owed.