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  • Barbara L. Pittman
    September 14, 2012
Labor Crises‎ > ‎

"Bloody Harlan" Strike

"Bloody Harlan": The Enduring Strike

After World War I and the Depression, the economy of the nation was on the rise.   This provided for favorable conditions for the coal mining business as new mines opened and workers were being hired.   As production was on the rise in the United States, overseas markets began to decline.   This affected coal mining in the U.S. because alternate sources of fuel were being put to use and coal was not as widely needed.   The poor working conditions that came about led to the Harlan Coal Mine Strike or "Bloody Harlan."  This strike started in 1931 and lasted for several years.   To this day many problems are still unresolved.   The events leading up to this included wage disputes, dangerous working conditions, unsatisfactory living conditions, the forming of unions, and economic hardships affecting the town of Harlan.  

The events that led up to the crucial Harlan Coal Mine Strike in 1939 began in mid-April of 1931.   A makeshift union made up of 17,000 people held regular marches that each consisted of 2,500 to 4,000 miners marching down to the Harlan Courthouse.   In May of 1931, vigilantes began to attack the miners.   On May 5, 1931 armed deputies headed over to Evarts, a town 5-8 miles away from Harlan and found miners waiting for their arrival (Peters).   As the deputies arrived, a shot was fired and a riot broke out.   The person who fired the first shot is still unknown and a commissary clerk and a miner died.  

On "January 1, 1932, the NMU called a national strike in the Harlan bell field" (Peters).   This strike was held by 1,500 miners marching in the streets to protest the "arrest of 6 women and 3 men for 'strike activities'" (Peters).   On May 15, 1939 mining operations and numerous coal companies were shut down.   The commander of the peace keeping force, General Ellerbe Carter, was ordered by Governor A.B. "Happy" Chandler to intervene between striking miners and mine operators.  

Governor AB "Happy" Chandler ordered in about nine hundred National Guardsmen under the "disguise of keeping the peace" (Morgan).   The Guard was there for security and "escorted the miners to and from the mines" (Morgan).   However, the local miners referred to the National Guardsmen as "scabs", or outsiders, and viewed them as the "strike breakers" (Morgan).  

Along with holding protests and riots, miners and their families had to deal with poor living conditions.   Miners along with their families lived in coal camps or company towns.   The mines were usually in remote areas so the companies built and owned houses, stores, and churches, along with providing food and clothing.   The houses for the coal miners were often built to hold two families.  

Many of these towns did not respect the privacy of any of the coal workers.   They did things such as going through their mail and not letting them have access to certain newspapers.   "During the summer of 1931 strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, at least seven large coal companies in the surrounding states forbid the possession of the delivery of the Knoxville News- Sentinel in their towns" (Perez).   Articles on mining unions were printed in this paper and the company owners didn't want the workers to read this.   The company owners also read the workers' mail. "If a letter was read which was deemed by the company to be offensive or in any way derogatory towards the owners, then the mail was destroyed" (Perez).   "Since the only post office which was available in the town was located at the company store, the miners were unable to obtain the freedom of speech which is federally guaranteed to all other citizens" (Perez).

Along with building and owning towns, companies provided a form of money, also called scrip.   Scrip could only be used within the towns, which forced the workers to buy everything from the company.   This caused problems with miners because the prices were about fifty percent higher in the privately owned stores.   If that wasn't bad enough for the miners, cuts were also taken out of their wages before they got paid.   These cuts were for "rent, mandatory doctors' bills (even if the miner didn't see a doctor), a burial fund, and for "mine expenses," which included fuel, explosives, and any work that needed to be done on a miners' tools " (Rorrer). With that said, many miners were faced with starvation because of the lack of work and less pay for the work that they did.  

Not only was the freedom of the coal miner taken from him, many times his life was also.   "The coal operators and owner sacrificed the coal miner's safety to better their profits" (Philpot).   Many coal miners lost their lives trying to make a living for their family.   These unsatisfactory living conditions, dangerous working conditions, and wage disputes led to the organizing of unions, and the miners soon formed the "Harlan chapter of the United Mine Workers Association " (Rorrer).          

The miners soon demanded a strike, but the problem was that the UMWA had an anti-strike policy that they enforced. Instead of supporting the miners with a strike, the UMWA offered to "support the miners by providing them relief if a strike were to ever occur" (Rorrer).   When miners joined unions however, they were blacklisted.   When a worker was blacklisted they were put on a list of unemployable miners.   Along with being blacklisted, they were evicted from their company homes (Peters).   When the UMWA realized the extensive needs of the miners, their support waned.  

The UMWA was founded in 1890 in Columbus, Ohio as a result of the merging of the Knights of Labor Trade Assembly No. 135 and the National Progressive Union of Miners and Mine Laborers.   The new union did not allow discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin.   They saw how destructive this could be when racism was so accepted by Americans during this time.   The union also agreed to do everything they could "maintain peace between ourselves and employers" (A Brief) so that strikes would not occur.   The UMWA was also one of the first unions to enact health and retirement benefits and was the top union in fighting for worker health and safety.   Around 1917, the United Mine Workers of America organized 90 percent of miners.

When the miners were no longer being supported by the UMWA, they joined a new union, the National Miners Union ( Adock ).   However, they were different than the UMWA in that they had direct ties to the principles supported by Communists.   Dan Brooks was the first NMU organizer and first appeared in Kentucky in June of 1931.   Within a few weeks, about 4,000 miners joined the NMU after listening to him speak about working conditions.   Although a majority of the workforce in this area was not brought up on communist principles, many of them agreed with Brooks about "reform in the coal mines, and implementing higher wages, and better working conditions" ( Adock ).   However, this involvement didn't last long and as early as January 28, 1932 local miners were diminishing from taking part in the union.   They claimed that it was mostly from "broken promises and words that were not acted upon, on the part of the union" ( Adock ).   The NMU officially ended at the end of March 1932.

Even though some of the unions did not last, the strike in Harlan lasted a while. Peace never came to Harlan and to this day some problems are still left unresolved.   However, changes did come about from the strike and the UMWA still "continues its primary role of speaking out on behalf of American coal miners" (A Brief).



Annotated Bibliography


"A Brief History of the UMWA." UMWA: United Mine Workers of America. http://www.umwa.org/history/hist1.shtml. (27 Jan 2004).

This web page has information on the UMWA. It tells about its relationship with mine workers amnd its many leaders in the time it has been arund. It also tells you information on when it was founded and what they are engaged with now.

Adock, Jason. "The National Miners Union" . http://athena.english.vt.edu/~appalach/essaysM/nmu.htm. (26 Jan 2004).

This web page tells how the NMU was formed and how the first organizer, Dan Brooks, ended up bringing the NMU to Kentucky.

Bishop, Bill. "Leadership can only exist when vision joins respect." Kentucky Post 28 Sept 1999. http://www.kypost. com/opinion/kguest092899.html (25 Jan 2004).

This is a page on a college trip to Harlan County. It explains their discoveries and states the interesting facts they learned while talking to people who lived in Harlan County.

Morgan, Elva Nolan. "Welcome Kentucky Coal Miners." Roots Web. 17 Jan 2004. http://rootsweb.com/~kycoalmi/. (25 Jan 2004).

This web page gives the reader many ways to look at the strike.   It tells you about the deaths and in what year they occurred and it also gives you a few pictures.

O'Quin, Jill. "Solidarity Forever: The UMWA." http://athena.english.vt.edu/~appalach/essaysS/umwa.htm. (25 Jan 2004).

This web page tells you how dedicated the UMWA is to its workers.   It tells the reader about the strikes it worked with and which reasons we fought for.

Perez, Haley. "Slaves of Coal." http://www.publishit.com/Authors/P/Perez_Haley/SlavesofCoal/page010.html. (26 Jan 2004).

This web page tells us about the first amendment giving the miners a right to express their beliefs about the conditions in a form of strike.

Peters, Jennifer. "The 'Bloody Harlan' Years in Kentucky and Their Historical Context." http://athena.english.vt.edu/~appalach/essaysG/harlan2.htm. (26 Jan 2004).

This web page tells the reader about what led up to the strike and events in chronological order. 

Philpot, Roger. "A Brief Overview." A Tribute to the Coal Miner. http://rogerphilpot.homestead.com. (26 Jan 2004).

This web page gives you an overlook on many different aspects of the coal miners in Kentucky.   It has many different topics and facts about the coal miners.

Rorrer, Katie. "Prepare to Meet Thy God: War in the Harlan County Coal Fields." http://www.athena.english.vt.edu/~appalach/essaysG/harlan1.htm. (25 Jan 2004).

This web page gives reasons that led up to the strike and why the unions failed to give support to the miners.  


Related Links

Coal Mines in Harlan County Kentucky

This is a list of all of the coal mines in Harlan. This site lists the owners, years it was open, number of workers, and how many workers were working in that mine.

Labor Strikes in the Coal Industry

This is a site that talks about the UMWA and infamous coal mine strikes along with "Bloody Harlan" and it also includes pictures.


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