Unions 101 – Which Side Are You On?

August 3, 2010

“There’s no such thing as neutral. You have to be on one side or the other. Some people say, “I don’t take sides – I’m neutral.” There’s no such thing. In your mind you’re on one side or the other. In Harlan County there wasn’t no neutral. If you wasn’t a gun thug, you was a union man. You had to be.”

Florence Reece

Rand Paul doesn’t know squat about Harlan County Kentucky. He should have studied up by now, and his ignorance, be it willful or just plain stupid, is a slap in the face to the Kentucky coal miners who fought and died over many generations for the right to organize the mines.

Which Side Are You On?

Come all of you good workers
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

My daddy was a miner
And I’m a miner’s son
And I’ll stick with the union
Till every battle’s won

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Oh, workers can you stand it?
Oh, tell me how you can
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?

Don’t scab for the bosses
Don’t listen to their lies
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance
Unless we organize

Florence Reece was the wife of a Harlan County coal miner and labor organizer and her simple message “Us poor folks haven’t got a chance unless we organize,” may resonate more today than at any time since she wrote those lines in the midst of a terror attack at the hands of deputized company gun thugs sent to arrest or beat or kill her union organizer husband Sam.

The Kentucky coal mines weren’t union back then. If you worked the mines, a company payday lender issued you company scrip – actually an advance against unearned wages which was designed to trap the worker in debt – which you could redeem in the company store for shoddy overpriced merchandise.

Many lost their lives due to the neglect of operators who in some cases robbed the miner of his dignity, his honor and his rights to earn a decent living for his family. I am a coal miners daughter. One of eight children who lived in a four room company house, in a company camp, traded at the company store, with company scrip. To get silver money a miner got 85 cents in silver for every dollar in scrip. My dad did owe his soul to the company store.

As a Kentucky coal miner, you paid rent right back to your employer for the right to live in a company hovel. If you were willing to pay a little extra, you might have had running water – out on the front porch with open drainage directly into the street.

When you died, a company funeral home buried you in a company cemetery.

The absentee mine owners also owned the police and the jail – Harlan County Sheriff J. H. Blair bragged that most of his deputies were mine guards still on the company payroll. There was no democracy in a company town or coal camp – everything was controlled by the company.

The paternalistic system worked well enough in boom times – coal was king before petroleum – and the vast profits rapidly accumulated by mine owners gave them plenty of cash with which to quash any attempts at organizing while paying their workers just barely enough to get by.

But after World War One, coal prices slumped, and the subsistence wage boom times were over. A decade of pay cuts and layoffs followed, and by 1930 or so, the workers were getting really fed up. Or, more accurately, not fed at all.

Q4 Can you tell us something about the condition of the people in this hollow?
A: The people in this country are destitute of anything that is truly nourishing to the body. That is the truth. Even the babies have lost their lives, and we have buried from four to seven a week all along during warm weather.
Q5 Due to lack of food?
A: Yes, on account of cholera, famine, flux, stomach trouble brought on by undernourishment. Their food is very bad, such as beans and harsh foods fried in this lard that is so hard to digest. It is impossible for a little baby’s stomach to digest them. The digestive organs are not strong enough to digest this food.
Q6 Is that the only food they have, if they have that?
A: They can only get beans. Their parents have been out of work this summer. Families have had to depend on the Red Cross. The Red Cross put out some beans and corn.

Q11 Do they give to every one that asks?
A: No the Red Cross does not give to every one. I always thought they was selfish; they didn’t have the right kind of heart.
Q12 Do they give to members of the National Miner’s Union?
A: No, they stop it when they know a man belongs to the union.
Q13 What did they say about it?
A: The Red Cross is against a man who is trying to better conditions. They are for the operators, and they want the mines to be going so they won’t give anything to a man unless he does what the operators want him to. For instance, I will explain this. My husband took pneumonia and flux for three months. He has not been able to work since this strike. I have to carry back something for my husband to eat from the soup kitchen. The Red Cross won’t give anything. We are really in destitution. I talked to the Red Cross lady over at Pineville.

Q15 Did she offer to give you any relief?
A: No, because they was members of the National Miners Union. They said, “We are not responsible for those men out on strike. They should go back to work and work for any price that they will taken them for.” That was last week.
Q16 How many children die a month or a year under these conditions?
A: Now in the summer, it would be three to seven each week up and down this creek.

Q20 Are these houses sanitary and healthful to live in?
A: Therse houses bring grip, flu and pneumonia.
Q21 Is this a company house?
A: Yes.
Q22 Does the company fix it?
A: They do not fix it. Just plainly speaking they are no more interested in the men, in the miners, they have not got the sympathy that people has for stock, for the mules.
Q23 Much less, because a man who owns stock knows he must take care of it or he loses money. They don’t feel that way about the miners, I believe you.
A: If I had a milk cow or a horse I certainly would be more interested in them than the coal operators is in these people.
Is your husband a member of the N.M.U.?
A: My husband is a member of the National Miners Union, and I am too, and I have never stopped, brother, since I know of this work for the N.M.U. I think it is one of the greatest things that has ever come into this world.

Q29 You know all the people in this village are suffering from lack of food?
A: Yes, they are destitute of food and clothing.
Q30 You have been a nurse in this community?
A: Yes, just charity.
Q31 You have brought children into this world?
A: Yes sir, 65. My poor husband, he did all he could do. They took their wagons and they would beg for these pumpkins and corn and that would be all they would get without any seasoning and many days they had nothing but those pumpkins. It’s all right if we had the other things to fix the pumpkins up but we had nothing and it is very hard to digest that way.
Q32 What do they do with the pumpkins?
A: They feed their hogs. If you had the flavoring, you could fix up something good.

That was the testimony of Aunt Molly Jackson before the Dreiser Committee in 1931. Jackson was a blacklisted miner’s wife and a midwife, a union organizer and, per Woody Guthrie, “one of America’s best native ballad singers.”

Actually, Woody had a little more to say about Aunt Molly Jackson.

When she saw these little babies starving to death like flies all around her, Aunt Molly got interested in good wages for their dads. She got up in front of the miners, sung them songs, made them speeches, yelled at them to lay down their tools and wait till the boss raised the pay. She tells of the meetings they had. How the winchester rifle bullets use [sic] to kick the gravel up in your face while you was out making a talk about the rich coal operators and the poor hungry miners. In a year Aunt Molly told more truth than the politicians could bear to hear, so it got too hot for her down in Kentucky.

I know Molly well. She’s strong and she’s good, and she aint [sic] afraid of the police. She says what she thinks when she thinks it. The big guys call her a red. Well, Molly, it looks like if you always say just exactly what you think is right, they’ll jump on you and say you’re a red.

Some folks just aint quite got the nerve to say what they think is right. But some day they’ll wish they had. You aint scared of nobody, Molly. I know it. I’ve been around you long enough to know that. And you can’t stay around Molly for even a few minutes, but what she’ll speak out something that is so good, so true, and so honest, that it’ll stick in your head as long as you live.

Kentucky coal miners know how to speak out. They also know how to take action.

The bloodiest battles to build a union have been in the coal fields — in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Illinois, Colorado, and Kentucky. And surely the toughest and meanest of all the coal field where men fought for a voice and a place in the sun was “Bloody Harlan” in Kentucky.

In 1931, coal miners in Harlan County were on strike. Armed company deputies roamed the countryside, terrorizing the mining communities, looking for union leaders to beat, jail, or kill. But coal miners, brought up lean and hard in the Kentucky mountain country, knew how to fight back, and heads were bashed and bullets fired on both sides in Bloody Harlan.

The violence ebbed and flowed, but the Kentucky miners stuck to their guns (literally) and in 1933, they won the right to organize

Unionism finally came to Harlan County in May 1933, when section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act recognized the legal right of workers to organize unions. The UMW organized the coal mines in a matter of months. By autumn of 1933, the workers signed their first collective bargaining agreement with the coal operators.

One of the most important things about Harlan County is that it attracted national attention to the plight of the coal miners, much as the civil rights demonstrations of the early 1960s brought the injustice of segregation to the awareness of the nation. In late 1931, novelist Theodore Dreiser and a team of writers came down to report on (as Dreiser put it) “terrorism in the Kentucky coalfields.” And during the strike, writer Waldo Frank organized an “Independent Miners Relief Committee” to bring food to the miners. Busloads of northern college students came South to support the miners, handing out food and copies of the Bill of Rights. Florence Reece’s song, “Which Side Are You On?” also served to spread the word about the conflict, and became a lasting favorite of labor and civil rights activists.

For people around the country, the Harlan County uprising of the early 1930s demonstrated the limits of the company paternalism and welfare capitalism of the 1920s. In this way, it helped pave the way for the Wagner Act of 1935, which guaranteed workers the right to organize and created a legal process for attaining union recognition. The northern writers and organizers who told the story of Harlan County to the rest of the country helped to cast union organization as American and democratic, and the actions of the companies as tyrannical, violent, and arbitrary. Finally, the ultimate victory of the miners showed that even under the most difficult conditions, in the most rural communities, workers could organize and win union representation. The mineworkers’ union, with its stronghold in Harlan County and Appalachia, would remain a powerful force in the United States throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and the entire postwar era.

Winning the right to organize was not the end of the struggle for Harlan County coal workers. Violence continued for many years as miners struggled to educate reluctant owners. In April of 1941, the last union organizing gun battle in the SE Kentucky area took the lives of a mine owner and some company officers and guards as well as at least one union member.

Rhodes was a large, reckless young man who arrogantly told union men that if miners attempted to picket his mine, he would slaughter them. For months, he and Bob Robinson, a former Tennessee highway patrolman, had been parading around with their Tommy guns and challenging the miners to a fight. More than half of the employees had been signed up by the UMWA, but Rhodes ignored their demands and hired more thugs.

On April 15, 1941, the union decided to post a picket line in the safest place they could find. The pickets chose stations where they could take cover in case they were attacked by company guards, and then moved to a strategic place near the mine. When the caravan of cars came to a stop at the state line and started to unload, the fifty pickets were greeted with a broadside from fifteen or eighteen armed guards who had word they were coming and had preceded the pickets to the state line. On the first volley, one picket was killed and more than a dozen were wounded, nine seriously enough to be hospitalized.

The battle raged across the state line and more than a thousand shots were fired.

This was the last gun battle in southeastern Kentucky and/or Tennessee over the UMWA’s right to organize. The feudal coal barons learned a valuable lesson from this encounter, namely that times were changing. They could no longer murder miners like dogs with impunity and with the protection of state governments. They had been taught that workingmen, for the first time in American history, were thought of as first-class citizens.

Thinking back, I realize that the Harlan County gun thugs in reality got nothing for their efforts to drive out the union. Most of them died violent deaths.

The ones who survived or died natural deaths had their consciences to live with. How they did it, I do not know.

Harlan county coal miners fought and died and beat back the capitalist thugs that were treating them worse than farm animals, and they set the stage for the Wagner Act and other labor victories.

Today, the working class is being squeezed and exploited in much the same ways that the coal miners were. The elite have stolen our wealth. Payday lenders and credit cards trap the working poor in debt. Wages have been stagnant or falling for years. Working families are turning to relief agencies to feed their kids.

Don’t scab for the bosses
Don’t listen to their lies
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance
Unless we organize

There’s no such thing as neutral. Which side are you on?


If you are not a union member, join Working America and get involved.
If you are a union member, join Working Families and get involved.
If you’re interested in forming a union at your workplace (that’s a BFD!), start here and stick to it.
Support American workers – use union shops whenever you can and buy from American manufacturers when possible.

Note: This post was inspired by Ross Altman’s awesome presentation of American protest songs archived at Pacifica and broadcast by Community Radio WMNF in Tampa last Friday.

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