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  • Precarious Politics:Friends of Coal, the UMWA, and the Affective Terrain of Energy Identification
  • Sylvia Ryerson (bio)

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Figure 1.

Rocky Adkins, then Democratic House majority leader for the Kentucky House of Representatives, speaking at a pro-coal rally in 2012 (Tom Hansell, "The Narrative of Renewal: 'If We Can't Mine Coal, What Are We Going To Do?'", Adkins is now senior adviser to the governor of Kentucky, Andy Beshear. Photograph by Tom Hansell / After Coal, 2012.

In the iconic scene of Harlan County USA, Barbara Kopple's 1976 Academy Award–winning documentary film, shots are fired in the dark at striking miners and their wives, and Kopple's camera is knocked to the ground. The moment captures the violent escalation of the Brookside Strike of 1973–74, organized by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) against Duke Power, the owner of the Eastover Coal Company's Brookside Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky. In the early morning darkness, the battle lines are clear. The predominantly white UMWA miners and their wives on the picket line confront the company-hired [End Page 719] "gun thugs" working to bring in scabs and break up the strike. With an active membership of 213,113 and 1,329 local chapters nationwide, in 1973 the UMWA remained one of the largest and most powerful labor organizations in the country, and the Appalachian coalfields had long played a central role in the union's history.1 The Brookside Strike gained symbolic significance and moral authority by contextualizing itself as a clear continuation of the Harlan County mine wars of the 1930s known as "Bloody Harlan," the nearly-decade-long battle that first established the UMWA in Eastern Kentucky. Kopple films a local UMWA rally during the Brookside Strike, where the songwriter Florence Reece comes to the podium. Her husband, Sam Reece, was a Harlan County miner and union organizer in the 1930s, and the retaliation they faced inspired Florence to pen the now-famous social justice anthem "Which Side Are You On?" As she sings her renowned verses to the 1970s crowd,

Come all you poor workersGood news to you I'll tellHow the good ol' unionHas come in here to dwell

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

If you go to Harlan CountyThere is no neutral thereYou'll either be a union manOr a thug for J. H. Blair

Which side are you on?Which side are you on?2

Released some forty years later, the 2015 documentary film Overburden follows the fight against mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR) in the Coal River Valley of southern West Virginia, and across the Central Appalachian coalfields of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. The drama climaxes at a 2009 anti-MTR rally held outside a Massey Energy–owned coal processing plant near Coal River Mountain, the site of an impending MTR job. The "anti-MTR" activists are met by dozens of "pro-coal" miners and supporters, in an emotional confrontation. As the anti-MTR activists demand that the state intervene to halt the blasting, pro-coal supporters shout back angrily "go home tree huggers!" and wave Massey Energy flags. Thirty-one arrests are made, as the anti-MTR protestors attempt to block the road to the plant.3 Again, the [End Page 720] battle lines are clear—but the political allegiances have completely changed. While the picketers of the Brookside Strike held signs reading "Duke Power Wants Rate Increases for Customers, Poverty for Coal Miners" and "Duke Power Co. Owns the Brookside Mine, But They Don't Own Us," the miners at the 2009 protests held signs reading "EPA = Equal Poverty for All" and "If You're Against Coal Then Turn Off Your Lights."4

In a stunning reconfiguration of roles, this scene played out over and over again in protests and rallies across the coalfields beginning in the early 2000s. The question "Which side are you on?" remained ever present in the coalfields, but the sides were redrawn: one was...


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