Which Side Are You On?: A Book Review by The League of Revolutionaries for a New America’s Legacy Committee for Labor Day 2023

By The League of Revolutionaries for a New America’s Legacy Committee

The first line of Lynda Ann Ewen’s book, Which Side Are You On? reads: “There is nothing nice about a strike.” In 1931, in the midst of a miners’ strike called the “Harlan County War,” the wife of a miners’ union organizer, Florence Reece, wrote the song with the same title. Sheriff J. H. Blair, with hired gun thugs, had entered their home searching for her husband and terrorized her and her children. In 1931, there were no neutrals there.

Ewen’s book returns to Harlan County 40 years later to recount the history of the Brookside United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) strike. Florence Reece herself came to participate, and her famous song became its anthem. Perhaps the only thing “nice” about this strike is that the Brookside miners won. But that’s not the end.

Ewen’s riveting narrative describes the trials and tribulations faced by the miners and their community, and shows that this victory was the exception. This strike was carried out from the bottom up, by the workers themselves but also received support well beyond Harlan County.

Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award winning Harlan County, USA was made about the strike. Still, Ewen recalls, it cost the UMWA $2 million to win a strike of 200 workers.

That sobering thought runs through the aftermath of the strike when the UMWA did commit that level of support to miners at High Splint or, two years later, the Stearns strike. By then the whole dynamic had changed. Anti-union forces took revenge against some of the Brookside miners in the wake of the strike.

Ewen recounts the story of Bessie Lou Cornett, whose marriage was destroyed, whose child was taken from her, and who was the object of Ku Klux Klan night riders because of her union support activities. Her second husband, Chuck Parker, wrote this in an April, 2010 obituary in the People’s Tribune:

“She became involved in the Brookside coal strike because she saw it as an opportunity to fight the whole oppressive system of capitalism – not merely to get union representation for the miners. She was a tireless worker and organizer and she was fearless against the threats and attacks against her. She had to struggle also against the extreme male supremacy of her first husband and his family who tried to prevent her from playing a leading role in that struggle. She survived an attempt to kill her by her husband, physical assaults by the scabs and police and jailings. She was divorced and lost custody of her only son.” https://peoplestribune.org/peoples-tribune-pdf-archives/

It has been 50 years since July 26, 1973 when the Brookside strike began. Today there is not a single UMWA union mine left in Illinois and Kentucky, perhaps other states as well. All of the miners of UMWA in Kentucky are currently retirees. And our fellow retired UMWA workers in KY are numerous! They frequently fight back for the benefits they worked for and were promised. In 1979, when Ewen published this volume, she summed up one lesson of the strike in the first line of the book, which our retired UMWA brothers and sisters know well. There is nothing nice about a strike.

Coal mining is skilled and dangerous labor to this day. The state of the industry in Appalachia is facing lots of challenges. Across eastern Kentucky, the industry is a shadow of what it once was.

This is largely influenced by economic forces. Coal in Appalachia is more expensive to mine than it is in coal fields to the west in states like Wyoming. And coal used for energy production, on the whole, is more expensive than natural gas and cannot compete on the market.

Amid these challenges, there is a growing fighting spirit at UMWA. The recent 23-month strike at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama created shockwaves across the country, especially within the trade union movement. The strike led to greater public awareness about the current state of the industry.

ALL miners have an interest in economic stabilization and worker stability, livelihoods, better industry standards and working conditions. This is true in every coal field, not merely coal fields in central Appalachia. Coal mining is shifting to using temp workers. This is a bad state of affairs.

A horrific truth still looms large over the industry: worker fatalities. Miners still die while on the clock due to dangerous working conditions, mine disasters, equipment malfunctioning and more. Temp workers are more likely to die on the job during work hours than union miners. Additionally, miners die due to working long hours and fatalities in car crashes due to exhaustion. Miners die because of compounding impacts of coal related illnesses (Black Lung, Cancers, Silica dust, etc.). No job should be a death sentence.

Black lung is an incurable disease caused by inhaling coal and silica dust. Today, we are seeing a growing epidemic of black lung and silicosis across central Appalachia. Since the mountains have been mined for a long time in central Appalachia, miners have to chew through more and more rock to get to thinner and thinner coal seams. Chewing through rock is what causes silica dust, which is even more dangerous to workers’ lungs than coal dust, which is already very dangerous.

Black lung is extremely fatal for those diagnosed. Across central Appalachia, we are seeing a rise in black lung diagnosis. This is impacting younger and younger miners. We know that black lung is entirely preventable if working conditions are safe. The truth is that the rise in black lung diagnosis proves, once more, that companies do not care about workers.

Workers deserve healthy, long and dignified careers. Companies are preventing that at every turn.

The federal government has recently released a draft rule that would update the silica exposure limit for miners, but we also have concerns about the new rule. Help support miners in the fight against black lung by telling the Mine Safety and Health Administration to strengthen the silica rule.

#BlackLungKills TAKE ACTION ON THE FEDERAL SILICA RULE HERE: https://blacklungkills.org/silica

In 2023, many people yearn for a general strike or urge a particular union to go on strike – people who have never walked a picket line or been threatened by gun thugs, the KKK or, for that matter, Proud Boys. The labor movement today is so much different from what it was in the 1970s. The organized trade union movement then comprised a little less than 20% of the workforce. Today that number is less than 10%, and the majority of that workforce is in service industries. New organizing seems

most prominent in Amazon warehouses and Starbucks cafes.

Despite, or perhaps because of, all these differences, Which Side Are You On?, is an important book to read now. In these pages Ewen paints a chilling portrait of the combination of law enforcement and the coal companies and the politicians, a grim reminder of what we face today.

Similarly, the role of the courts in Brookside parallel the role that courts are playing, stripping rights away from us. Finally, we come to understand the way in which labor legislation has come to be stacked against the working class, and why the organization of workers today can succeed when it engages class interests, reaching outside the narrow membership of the union.

For Labor Day, during the month of September:

Which Side Are You On? and the book, Power in America, (John Keller) are available together for a $10 donation to the League of Revolutionaries for a New America (free shipping).

You can pay via PayPal, credit or debit card on the League website here: https://lrna.org/

Be sure to indicate that the donation is for “Labor Day books” and include your mailing address. You may also send a check, made out to “LRNA,” to the League @ P.O. Box 477113, Chicago, IL 60647.

The song, “Which Side Are You On?” has been covered by many musicians since Florence Reece wrote the tune we all know and love.

Here are a few versions:

Here is Florence Reece singing “Which Side Are You On?”

Pete Seeger (Appalachian National Anthem recording)

Rebel Diaz and others bring it up to date:

Adam Gottlieb also adds verses https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3O9ZfVIvX8o

Power in America: The Southern Question and The Control of Labor (ISBN 10: 091770214X ), John Keller. Used copies are available from ABE books for approximately $50

Which Side Are You On? The Brookside Mine Strike in Harlan County, Kentucky 1973-1974 (ISBN 10: 0917702-09-3), Lynda Ann Ewen. Used copies are available from ABE books for approximately $30.

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