Movie Notes: Harlan County, USA
I rented Harlan County USA for Labor Day and found it, not surprisingly, to be an extremely absorbing documentary. Chronicling a 1973 strike at the coal mines of Duke Power, Barbara Kopple draws us into the culture of Appalachia, the lives of miners and the families, and the everyday struggles of the working poor. Regardless of one’s feelings about labor, unions, or capitalism, it’s impossible to watch these men hunched over in cold, dark mines, where accidental deaths are commonplace and black lung is expected, trying to eke out a meager living in squalid company housing lacking heat or running water, and not think “there but for the grace of God go I”.
In the current renaissance of the documentary film, directors like Michael Moore seem to have forgotten or never known that the key to a compelling documentary is empathetic curiosity about the lives of other people.Kopple never condescends or takes an ironic stance towards the people she documents; there are no hokey, questionable ambushes. Instead, her crew spent months living and working with the miners of Harlan County, Kentucky, standing on the picket lines day after day, and getting beat down and shot at by strikebreakers. Adding another dimension to the film, the soundtrack is filled with the bluegrass music of Appalachia, with many songs played by the workers themselves. By the end of the film, you feel like these people are family and not the dupes or exotic outsiders in the imagination of entirely-too-much of the contemporary left.
For me, working people are family. I spent a decade working construction, road crew, factory work and grocery stock, and met some of the brightest, most interesting and resolutely individual people I’ve ever known. I grew up with the same sort of men, eating at our house after their shift ended. After getting his psych degree, my father decided he would rather work outdoors. He made his living by his labor, first as a lineman and then as a lobsterman and part-time machine shop worker. From him, and other members of my family, I absorbed the belief that “working” means labor that causes sweat and strain, while what people like myself do with papers and computers is something less than working. The simple reality is that, without the people who get up at five a.m. to work on road crews, factories, warehouses, driving trucks, and all the rest, society would come to a halt; without “consultants” and middle managers, life would go on. I was therefore raised to see laborers as the finest people in society.
This, I suspect, is why I’ve felt alienated from that wing of supposed “libertarians” who mouth a Randian inversion of Communist ideology: laborers as parasites with the capitalists who “produce wealth” as their natural superiors and engine of progress. I think I have a healthy respect for capitalism and the market, but frankly I could care less if chubby, pencil pushing MBA egotists “go Galt”. Put those guys shoulder to shoulder with my dad on a construction outfit and they’d be reduced to tears.
Adam Smith, of course, was right that the price of goods is reflective of labor. Harlan County USA poses a simple question: If a mine turns a profit of, say, two million dollars in a given year, how much are the men who actually got down in the cold, dirty, unsafe conditions to extract that coal entitled to be paid? How much more, or less, is the guy who sits in the office making calls, filling out papers, and paying fines for numerous safety violations entitled to be paid? Which decisions by management can be attributed to the need to remain competitive, and which are attributable to greed? Ultimately, what is a fair price for labor?
The unions that exist to represent the workers in this equation succumbed to deep corruption that is well-documented, including in Harlan County USA. Industries like meatpacking have mostly shed the unions and now employ illegal aliens, drug-addicted indigents, and the desperate; these are no longer jobs that you can raise a family on. The left lost the hardhats decades ago without ever realizing their role in that alienation. The right valiantly defends their tastes and hobbies. The inflation of higher degrees, which I benefit from, along with a steady deindustrialization of the US, has fostered a condescending attitude towards the trades and those who work them that is absurd and self-defeating. And huge swaths of America consider themselves lucky just to have a job. None of that means that these questions are yet resolved.
Note: Many consider Harlan County, USA to be one of the finest examples of documentary film. At least for the time being, you can watch the film beginning here. It was apparently taped off Arte, so there are German subtitles.