Directed by Barbara Kopple
A little ways into Harlan County, USA, there’s a shot of a coal mine with three figures overlaid. One shows the triple-digit profit increase of the parent company who owns the mine. The second shows the increased cost of living for those who work there. The third shows their wage increase for this same period. It’s less than the second figure and a fraction of the first.
Earlier, an opening montage only a few minutes long convinces you that anyone who makes their living in those mine shafts ought to be paid whatever they want. A few feet high with coal dust coating everything and everyone, it’s an oppressive dark that threatens to collapse on you at any moment. But here we are: Harlan County, USA exists because the miners don’t get paid even close to what they ought to, and during the documentary’s runtime, Barbara Kopple tells an all-access story of their 14-month strike. An intensely private account on behalf of the involved strikers, but also a showcase for the struggle between the classes that’s only grown more pronounced.
Harlan County, USA was released in the mid-70s but it’s in direct conversation with our present, where company profits are still sky-rocketing while cost of living increases outstrip the wage hikes those very same companies are offering their employees. Kopple’s film is (maddingly) relevant even today, decades on, and the time that has elapsed since then without real progress on worker’s rights make it even more compelling and frankly, enraging.
The micro-economic focus of Kopple’s film is what lifts it out of froth-at-the-mouth polemicizing. Few of the striking miners are given names, only the bigwigs of the national unions or company CEOs. Instead, we stand alongside workers on the picket line, mixed in between them as they fend off company thugs who try to intimidate them, and later, eliminate them with drive-by shootings under cover of night. We sit among the strikers in their meetings, as they fearfully discuss how to better protect each other. We watch them wheeze for breath as Kopple outlines the human toll of coal mining, showing us the consequences of black lung that many older miners must endure with little-or-no compensation from the company who got rich from their work. The stakes are real and evident.
It’s astonishing, the access Kopple and her crew have gotten, standing right in the thick of the action, too close to comfort a few times. It’s brave filmmaking, determined filmmaking, and a model to follow for any filmmaker. That Kopple was only in her late 20s while filming is all the more incredible, staring straight down the very real possibility of bodily harm several times.
More than just fly-on-the-wall stuff, it’s great humanitarian storytelling as well, as Kopple brings to life the rolling hills of Harlan County through folk songs. Used to express both narrative and offer the outlook and attitude of its citizens, it’s a potent marriage of sound and vision. Maybe Harlan is overflowing with working class blues and Kopple just put it on film, but regardless, it’s such a vivid picture of a time and place.
The crux of the matter is what ultimately distinguishes Harlan County, USA: company thugs, uncaring CEOs and corrupt union leaders are almost cartoonish as they are in their scowling, boot-licking ways, and they’d be laughable if it wasn’t for the devastating consequences of their ways. Cops, courts and politicians are “pro-economy” and willing to side with the powers that be. The intense frustration of witnessing the state of affairs is only dispelled by the courage found in the people Kopple decides to focus on, namely the men in the mines and the women at home, every bit as tough and tenacious as the support system for the front lines. They even get out in front a few times, too. The weaker sex, my ass.
In the fall of 2022, a railroad workers’ strike loomed after years of contract negotiations. The workers, citing abusive on-call schedules and zero sick leave days, wanted their working conditions improved. The rail industry, which recorded billions of profits that year, refused to meet workers’ demands. Citing fears of worsening the ongoing supply chain crisis, the U.S. government intervened, circumvented labor negotiations and signed a labor agreement the workers had already rejected into law. Railroad strikers received a 14% wage increase and 1 additional day of paid leave – no sick leave.
The U.S. is a cautionary tale of labor history, but other countries are not far behind. The gig economy has undercut many labor agreements, and unions are once again used as a slur by conservatives. Harlan County, USA, with its clear-eyed portrayal of the relationship between corporations and their workers remains every bit as powerful now as it was then.