Which Side Are You On?

Womens Support Group, Miners Strike.
Women’s Support Group, South Wales, 1984. Image http://www.flickr.com/photos/museumwales/

Bill Scott on a song of workers struggle which has lived on across the decades.

Come all of you poor 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?

If you go to Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

They say they have to guard us
To educate their child
Their children live in luxury
Our children almost wild

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

My daddy was a miner
He’s now in the air and sun
He’ll be with you fellow workers
Till every battle’s won

 Harlan County

Mining originally brought relative prosperity to the poor hill farming communities of Harlan County Kentucky.  By the 1920’s two thirds of the county’s labour force worked in the mines and just prior to the Great Depression the county had risen to become one of Kentucky’s wealthiest. However the onset of the Depression saw the mine owners cutting wages and crushing any signs of resistance in order to maintain their profits.

The mine owners in Harlan were industrial giants US Steel, Edison and Ford. They not only owned the mines but company stores, housing, schools and even churches. Moreover through bribes and patronage they also effectively owned local police forces, Sheriffs, judges and politicians. To make absolutely sure of control the mine owners brought in hundreds of armed thugs of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency as mine guards. This same agency had been responsible for the Matewan Massacre in the neighbouring mining area of West Virginia (for a brilliant account of this earlier organising struggle see film director John Sayle’s masterpiece “Matewan”). Known as “gun thugs”, by locals the “guards” protected scab labour during strikes and evicted union miners from company housing. Due to their control of local sheriffs the mine owners were even able to have these private guards deputised.

The Coal mine owners fired, blacklisted and evicted any miners that even talked of unionisation. Union organisers were beaten and shot by mine guards, in many cases with the backing of the local sheriff.  As a result of falling wages and severe unemployment, 231 children died of malnutrition in HarlanCounty between 1929 and 1931. The coal companies then imposed a 10% wage cut on their workers in early 1931. Almost spontaneously the, as yet non-unionised, Harlan miners decided to strike, feeling that they “might just as well die fighting as die of starvation.”

Some 18,000 miners walked out. Hundreds of miners were fired and their families evicted for even discussing joining the United Mine Workers union. Most of these sacked workers moved to Evarts, one of only three non-company towns in the county. Sacked miners began raiding company-owned stores to feed their families. Baldwin Felts thugs abused miners’ wives and children and openly carried guns to cower any opposition. Sheriff John Henry Blair reported that during the strikes of 1931-1932, “I did all in my power to aid the coal operators’ Sheriff Blair, responding to a reporter’s questions regarding the use of guns, said, “Hell, yes, I’ve issued orders to shoot to kill”. The strikers responded by arming themselves.

As tension mounted the “Battle of Evarts” took place on May 5, 1931. Three guards and a miner were killed. Two days later, the Governor of Kentucky mobilised the National Guard, ostensibly to neutrally police the County – in practise the Guard disarmed strikers, broke up picket lines and guarded the mines and company stores.But sporadic strikes and armed conflict continued and by May 1932, eleven people had been killed: five deputies, four miners, a Young Communist League organiser and a local storekeeper sympathetic to the strikers.

Sheriff Blair arrested and imprisoned most of the known UMW organisers on trumped up charges related to the Battle of Evarts. One night Blair and Baldwin Felts’ “deputies” raided the home of Florence Reese, the wife of one of the few UMW organisers still at large. They wrecked the family’s furniture and put Florence and her small children in fear for their lives. But Florence, showing tremendous courage, demanded that they leave.

Eventually they did so but Florence wanted to set down on paper how she felt about the struggle that she and her family were engaged in.  She ripped a calendar from the wall and on its back poured out her anger and defiance –  the song she wrote was “Which Side Are You On?”. She set it to the tune of an old British ballad called “Lay the Lily Low”. The song is a call to all workers to support the struggle. As ever there can be no neutrals in such a contest – either you side with the strikers or effectively side against them. The song is also very much from her own viewpoint as a mother and daughter –concerned with the future for her children and for her father, already blacklisted by the mine-owners.

The Harlan County coal miners continued their struggle throughout the 1930s, and the violence also continued. More workers were evicted, beaten and killed. For the UMW the struggle took on national importance as previously unionised mines in other counties and states threatened to break their union contracts as they were unable to compete fairly with the low wages paid in Harlan. Kentucky folk singers Aunt Molly Jackson and Jim Garland took up Florence’s song and popularised it at benefits for the HarlanCounty miners throughout the States. It became an organising song throughout the US as the new more militant unions of the Congress of Industrial Organisations fought recognition battles in mines, auto-factories and shipyards.

Union organisers finally succeeded in Harlan after another strike in 1939.A fifteen week all out strike by 9,000 miners culminated in the “Battle of Stanfill,” when the Kentucky National Guard shot and killed two miners and wounded several others. This prompted national press outrage directed at the mine owners and the Roosevelt Administration intervened to enforce Federal Law (introduced via the New Deal) which guaranteed workers the right to seek unionisation. The UMW signed an agreement winning recognition for itself and large wage increases for its members.

Civil Rights

But the story of the song does not end there. Aunt Molly Jackson recorded it and Pete Seeger, whose father was a folk song collector, took it up and recorded a version with the Almanac Singers (a group that sometimes included Woody Guthrie) and the Weavers. Then in the 60s the nascent Civil Rights movement adapted the song for its own use including new verses such as –

Come all you people
Lift up your voices and sing
Will you join the Ku Klux Klan
Or Martin Luther King?

Then in the 1972 struggle broke out again HarlanCounty. Miners at the Brookside mine went on strike over the Duke Power Company’s attempt to insert a No-Strike clause in their contracts. As ever local law enforcement sided with the owners. Threatened and harassed by armed deputies the miners were eventually barred by court order from mounting picket lines. Instead their wives, girlfriends and daughters mounted pickets on their behalf – and armed themselves to resist gun thug intimidation.

All of this is caught in the moving Oscar winning documentary “Harlan County USA” made by the women’s liberation activist and director Barbara Kepple. The strike ended after a year and the death of a picket with a, limited, win by the strikers. Kepple made a point of capturing the by then 70+ year old Florence Reece on film singing her inspirational song in support of the strikers and their militant female supporters.

1984 Miners Strike

The song again came to the fore during the 1984 Miners Strike. After six months of enforced silence due to vocal chord problems Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan made a triumphant return to performance at the Queens Hall in Edinburgh. He sang several songs in support of the striking miners and their families (the performance can be heard on the album, “Live in Edinburgh”). Amongst several additional verses of contemporary relevance was this –

Thatcher sent MacGregor
To smash the NUM
And break the workers’ unity
And I ask you once again

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

See here for the lyrics of Gaughan’s full version –http://www.dickgaughan.co.uk/songs/texts/whichside.html

Billy Bragg appeared at several miners benefits with Gaughan and heard him singing his version of “Which Side Are You On?” prompting Billy to record his own version which like Gaughan’s had many new verses including –

This government had an idea
And parliament made it law
It seems like it’s illegal
To fight for the union any more

Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?

A feature of the year long Miners Strike was the role played by the “Miners Wives”. The women of the coalfields, like their predecessors in the States came to the support of their husbands, fathers and sons. The Miners Wives Support Groups raised money, mounted pickets and sought solidarity from other workers. So great was their contribution that they had the support of the NUM’s President, Peter Heathfield, and General Secretary, Arthur Scargill, in seeking full membership of the NUM after the strike ended in defeat. Ironically only the unity of Euro-Communist officials such as George Bolton of the Scottish area with the NUM’s right wing prevented the women from winning full membership. Nevertheless many women, politicised by the strike, went on to make careers outwith the domestic sphere as community workers, councillors and MPs.

The Song Lives On

The song continues to be adapted and used in new struggles throughout the world. It has to my knowledge been used by striking workers in Japan and South Africa.  Natalie Merchant, the Dropkick Murphys and Rage Against the Machine have all recorded new versions of the song.

Perhaps the  most relevant up to date recording was Ani DiFranco’s which is featured in her 2012 CD of the same name.

DiFranco first performed the song in 2009 at Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday concert in MadisonSquareGardens.   Di Franco’s version starts traditionally but then adds Occupy-style drumming and opens out to address current issues including environmental destruction, corporate greed and imperialist wars. Significantly it re-genders the song away from a call to men to struggle on behalf of their families to one where women fight on their own behalf –

My mother was a feminist
She taught me to see
That the road to ruin is paved
with patriarchy

So, let the way of the women
Guide democracy
From plunder and pollution
Let mother earth be free

I can’t help but believe that Reece and the women who won the Brookside strike would have no problems with these sentiments that are so applicable to the labour and socialist movement of today.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *