Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) is a moving documentary about the struggle of the working class against the poorly regulated capitalism and the inherent maldistribution of wealth. The documentary tells the story of Kentucky coal miners and their families fighting the Brookside Mine of the Eastover Mining Company owned by Duke Power Company in 1973 for their right to join a union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Harlan County is a rural county located in a major coal-mining region in the Appalachian Mountains. The courage and desperation of the coal miners, and the oppression visited upon them by the company when they tried to organize a union that would represent them, attracted national attention in the 1970s.
Harlan County U.S.A. is a commentary on the evils of capitalism. Kopple focuses on how the working class unite to topple the ruling class, the bourgeoisie. In fact, the film can be seen as a crash course on the Marx’s economic analysis of capitalism. Basically, Marx viewed capitalist societies as increasingly polarized between an impoverished working class and an exploiting capitalist class. One of the tenets of Marxism is that capitalism is not possible without proletarianization and a “quite specific form of exploitation” (Katznelson, 1986, p. 14). The dominant class is the Duke Energy Company, which exists to amass profits at the expense of the miners working for the company and which is against the Union. The company is so powerful that it has the backing of the American government and provides military assistance. This only show the corporate elite’s control of states and national parties.
The coal miners belong to the exploited class. The conditions of the working class in Harlan County U.S.A. is appalling. At the very beginning, Kopple puts the audience at the very heart of the miners’ struggle. The claustrophobic opening shows the miners emerging from the dark shafts enveloped with soot, with older miners wheezing because of their blackened lungs. But these workers have to continue working, as they need the money to make ends meet.
Despite the health hazards involved in mining, suffering from black lungs and injuries by the age of 45, the workers are paid a measly $5-$6 per hour wage. They have no retirement plan. The company also does not provide dental plan either, as clearly indicated by the their teeth clearly indicate. Working families do not own a bathtub or have running water. In one scene, a young mother bathes her child in a ash tub. Many families also do not have access electricity. The documentary jolts the audience as Kopple takes them alongside these working people.
Crucial to the Marxist critique of capitalism is the elaboration of the labor theory of value proposed by classical economists like Smith and Ricardo. In his analysis, Marx saw the exploiting capitalists as seizing the surplus value produced by the workers, and accumulating huge amounts of capital, while the proletariat (the workers) grew ever poorer. In the film, Kopple reveals that Duke Power Company generate more than 100% in profits annually, whereas the striking coal miners only receive about 4% of the profits that the company make. According to Marx’s analysis, eventually, the rise of the working class would render capitalism obsolete. In this point the exploited class would be united and prepared to overthrow the capitalist system through revolutionary means, establishing a socialist society.
Marx also established the importance of the class struggle, where the exploited class would eventually unite to fight the bourgeoisie, and this is clearly evidenced in the documentary when the workers and their families strike against the company asserting their right to join a worker’s Union. This strike is revolutionary in scope as the workers try to clash with some of the most powerful and influential entities in the United States. The coal miners of Harlan County and their families see that their quality of life would significantly improve if they had a union. Despite the UMWA’s own problems, it represents hope for the workers.
Unionism first came to Harlan County in May 1933 through section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act. This Act recognized the legal right of every worker to organize and join unions. In a matter of months, the UMWA was able to organize the coal mines, and by the autumn of 1933, the coal miners signed their very first collective bargaining agreement with the operators. The spirit of unionism is put into test once again when coal miners demand to the Duke Power Company that they must be represented by a union.
The strike polarizes Harlan county into factions that resort to violence. During their strike to join UMW, which lasted for more than a year, mine operators headed by Duke Power would do anything possible to break the strike. The mining company would prefer to retain the status quo. This means making an ever-increasing profit while paying the non-unionized miners a wage and a benefits package that are well below the national standard. They even hired some intimidating “gun thugs” to threaten the strikers, on the picket lines as well as at home. In one gripping scene, Kopple films the leader of thugs aiming gun first on the workers and then on the camera itself.
In the end, the striking miners win a new contract. But it turns out that several benefits they have fought for are not included in the final agreement. Despite this, the strike of the working class is considered a success as it forces the ruling class to yield to their demands. The strike is one evidence that the Marxist idea of the exploited class waging a revolution to overthrow the dominant class still holds in this highly capitalist society characterized by a triangle where a few elite dominates while the masses suffer. Overall, what Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A. shows is a militant working class which has learned the historical and economic lessons of class struggle. They are united and are not afraid to clash with those in power.
Katznelson, I. (1986). “Working Class Formations: Constructing Cases and Comparisons.” In I. Katznelson ; A. R. Zolberg (eds.), Working Class Formations: Nineteenth-century patterns in Western Europe and the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.