Burning Up People to Make Electricity

In Harlan County, Kentucky, are some of our country's richest natural resources—and some of its poorest people.
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Among coal miners, Harlan County, Kentucky, is known as "Bloody Harlan." The name comes from a series of United Mine Workers strikes and labor-management battles which ended in a gunfight between deputized mine guards and miners on May 4, 1931, in the tiny community of Evarts. When the smoke had cleared, the bodies of three guards and one miner were found, and an undetermined number of other dead and dying had been carried away into the mountains.

Soon after the "Battle of Evarts," novelist Theodore Dreiser led a citizens' group to Harlan County to find and publicize the bloody facts. The group included John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, and a number of other writers and artists. Now, forty-three years later, Harlan County is again gripped in a UMW strike, this time at the Brookside mine of the Eastover Mining Company, and another citizens' group has been formed. Arnold Miller, who was an active coal miner until three years ago and is now the reform-minded president of the United Mine Workers, has asked me to serve as a member of a "Citizens Public Inquiry into the Brookside Strike."

It was Miller who defeated W. A. ("Tony") Boyle for the national presidency of the UMW in 1972 in an election closely supervised by the federal government. Prior to Miller's election, the union had become corrupt, dictatorial, and a frequent collaborator with the mine owners. In 1970, Joseph Yablonski had led a rank-and-file revolt against Boyle, and Yablonski and his wife and daughter had been brutally murdered by killers hired with union funds. Now, Tony Boyle is among those who have been convicted of complicity in the murders, and Arnold Miller is the head of the revamped union. The Brookside labor dispute erupted spontaneously soon after Miller's election. He decided to make Harlan County a test case in the UMW's new, more aggressive organizing efforts.

At Washington's National Airport, I board Piedmont Airline's fat little silver jet on a Sunday afternoon in early March. I glance at the new Piedmont magazine, Pace. It reports that "Piedmont" is an adjective derived.from Italian words that literally mean "formed at the foot of the mountains." In America, the word describes a region, including Harlan County, Kentucky, between the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic coast. The airline magazine contains an article on southern skiing, a feature on hot, winter drinks for the "Piedmont palate," an article on how tough it is to be thirty-three and middle-class today, and a success story about an Atlanta bra, sleepwear, girdle, and pantie company. The magazine presents a different picture of the people and conditions in the Piedmont region than the one I am to see in Harlan County, Kentucky.

On the plane with me, it turns out, is another member of the Citizens Inquiry, Jacqueline Brophy, who is the director of the Labor-Liberal Arts Program of Cornell University's School of Industrial Labor Relations in New York. Jacqueline Brophy is the daughter of Pat Brophy, who went into the mines when he was twelve, and who, in 1926, ran against John L. Lewis and lost. Brophy's was the last reform insurgency against UMW leadership until Joseph Yablonski's fatal try.

We are picked up at the airport by Si (for Simon) Kahn, a Pennsylvania rabbi's son who graduated from Harvard, came to the Southern mountains as a Vista worker, and remained here, working for local community groups. Si has signed on as head of the staff for the Citizens Inquiry, which is funded with a five-thousanddollar grant from the Field Foundation. It will be a two-hour, winding drive through the Cumberland Mountains to the town of Harlan. Si sticks a wad of Red Man chewing tobacco in his cheek and begins to fill us in on the background of the Brookside strike.

At first, heading northwest on modern Route 23, through Kingsport, Tennessee, Weber City, Virginia, and Gate City, Virginia, the sights are the same as almost everywhere else in America today. Trailer parks called Walnut Grove, Mobile Manor, and Mesa Village Mobile Manor. New subdivisions named Tall Oaks and Colonial Heights. Burger Chef. Big Boy. McDonald's. We stop for fish and chips at a chain-operated Long John Silver's Sea Food Shoppe, as out of place in the Cumberlands as a clam in a spruce tree.

Crossing the Clinch River, we turn onto Highway 421 and leave the modern world. Now, along a cloudy green stream, or through deep cuts in the mountains, or high atop a timbered ridge, looking down on green quilt-patch valleys, we wind our way toward Harlan. Frame houses with rusty tin roofs. Isolated trailer houses. Working barns of gray-black weathered wood. Faith Primitive Baptist Church. Now and then, there is a neat, new frame house or a Pic and Pay market between scattered tarpaper shacks. And, all around, there are the rolling mountains, covered with second-growth timber. And always there is a murky roadside stream, beech and sycamore trees lining its banks. It is too early for dolor. The trees are barely beginning to bud in the early March warmth.

"This whole country is like a layer cake," Si Kahn says, "a layer cake of shale, coal, and sandstone. Drift mines back into the mountains follow the seam of coal wherever it goes." Duke Power Company of North Carolina, he says, is the sixth largest utility company in the world. It has assets worth $2.5 billion. Its profits in 1973 were $90 million, up 14 percent from the year before. Duke went into the coal business directly in 1970 when it organized Eastover Mining Company as a wholly owned subsidiary and, through it, bought several mines in eastern Kentucky, including the one at Brookside. Kahn says that the miners were encouraged by Eastover's management, headed by Norman Yarborough, to join a small "company union," the Southern Labor Union. There was no standard contract for the miners. Each contract varied from mine to mine. Pay ranged from $17 to $32 day, the average being $25. There was no functioning safety committee Medical and retirement benefits were minimal and unreliable.

In June of 1973, in a National Labor Relations Board election, the miners at Brookside voted 113 to 55 to affiliate with the United Mine Workers. But negotiations for a contract with Eastover soon broke down, and on July 30 the miners at Brookside began the strike that now, as we arrive, is in its eighth month.

Si Kahn says that Eastover tried for a time to operate the mine with "scabs," but that the mine was shut down when the coal miners' wives and other women joined the men on the picket line. There had been several clashes with the "scabs," the mine guards, and the state police, Kahn says. Some of the women went to jail with the men, and some took their children with them.

We come into Harlan County at dusk. It is a warm night and at every bend in the asphalt road we hear a chorus of croaking frogs. The sign man for R C Cola has worked this territory well. Si says Harlan is a dry county -- no legal liquor and no beer. We drive through the streets of the town of Harlan, past the stores and houses, past the Harlan Baptist Church with a sign out front which reads: "If you are unkind, you are the wrong kind." Five miles north of Harlan, we drive up Inspiration Mountain. A historical marker says we are near the Little Shepherd Trail, the setting for the novel Shepherd of the Hills. Perched atop Inspiration Mountain is the modern Mount Aire Motel. What a marvelous view! "Yeah," a coal miner says, "but the land's so poor, you can't hardly raise an umbrella on it."

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