Harlan County War (2000)

 

 

 

Director:     Tony Bill.

Starring:     Holly Hunter (Ruby Kincaid),  Stellan Skarsgrd (Warren Jakopovich),  Ted Levine  (Silas Kincaid),  Wayne Robson  (Tug Jones),  Alex House  (Buddy Kincaid),  Charlotte Arnold  (Lucinda Kincaid),  Ker Wells (Little Lee),  Jennifer Irwin  (Mary Ball ),  Rufus Crawford  (Bill Worthington ),  Cliff Saunders  (Lawrence Perkins ),  Deborah Pollitt (Ora Perkins ),  Tim Burd (Dillard Ball),   Tom Harvey  (Jerry Selvey),  Reginald Doresa (Bronce Breckenridge ),  Helen Hughes  (Aunt Melva Jones).

a Kentucky coal miner's wife spearheads a 1970s union strike to close the mine and force contract negotiations

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.  

East Kentucky, 1973. 

Ruby reads the paper for an elderly woman.  The alarm goes off at the coal mine and virtually everyone runs down to the mine.  Ruby asks about her husband Silas Kincaide.  No information.  Then she asks about her father Tug Jones.  No information.  She finally finds her father and Silas, who are both all right. 

In the evening there is a knock at the Kincaid door.  It's Leroy Gilly from the mine.  Silas barely escaped death in the mine and Leroy has come to make sure that Silas will be able to climb right back on that horse and be there at the mine tomorrow.  He says that Silas is one of their best workers.  

Asleep Silas has a nightmare about the explosion in the mine which brings the experience right back to him.  The next morning Silas is at the company gate handing out information about the need for a coal miners' union.  One of the supervisors comes up to him and tells him that they know he has been handing out union cards on his shift.  Silas says:  "Yeah.  I still got some.  You want one?"  He says he nearly got killed yesterday and he watched that boy Dewey die in the mine.  The supervisor tells him:  "Keep it up and you won't work here anymore." 

Back from work, Silas bathes in a tub trying to get himself clean.  Ruby helps clean the back of his neck and back.  The talk among the miners is that a union organizer is coming to help them establish a union. 

The doctor looks at the X-rays of Tug Jones and tells him to quit mining.  He has second stage black lung disease.  The doctor says he can always get disability.  Tug asks the doc how long would it take before he actually started receiving disability payments?  It would take about a year to get disability.  Tug tells the medical man that he can't afford to wait for an entire year. 

The union organizer Warren De Kopavich arrives.  He comes from a family of Polish miners.  He tells the men:  "Don't let them intimidate you!" 

Ruby is given a hard time at the mining store.  The man who runs it says that Ruby's husband doesn't have enough money to cover her groceries.  Ruby complains that the company did not give her husband credit for the overtime that he worked.  The fellow isn't very sympathetic to her.   Ruby gets mad at the manager for his attitude. 

Warren comes over to speak with Ruby.  He tells her he is from the United Mine Workers' Association.  Ruby is still mad about the previous corrupt mine union and she takes it out on Warren.  She says if they vote the union in, they'll just take the money and run like the other fellows did.  Warren admits that the previous crew was corrupt and many of them are in prison now.  But this time the union is being run by the rank-and-file, not some corrupt group of union officials.  Ruby is still a bit rude to Warren and he leaves disgusted.

Silas is working to bring about the establishment of a union, but Ruby is not supportive.  This causes some friction between the couple.  Silas complains that the company is just not willing to negotiate with the workers. 

Warren holds a mine workers' meeting where he presents the case for the union.  Ruby's brother Floyd Jones is outspoken about the problems of establishing a mine.  This leads to a scuffle between Floyd and some union supporters.  Warren tells them to save their anger to fight the company and not each other.  The men start complaining about the lack of safety in the mine.  For instance, there are not enough rough bolts to hold up the mine roof.  Warren tells them that they will have a safety committee with a union and they will have a say on unsafe conditions.  He also stresses that the struggle for the union will not be easy.  They are 180 men up against the sixth largest utility company in the country.  The company recently made $90 million dollars in profit.  Do they pay local taxes to give the miners good schools for their children with some of that money?  Hell no!  The company has been busting the attempt to unionize the workers since the 1930s. 

The men will receive strike checks of $100 dollars per family per week.  He stresses that this is a new union and that 120,000 miners in the UMWA will be backing them and him.  "So, let's vote."  The union idea passes easily.  At the end of the meeting, a worker tells Warren that he should keep a gun in his pocket around here.  Warren lifts up his coat on his right side and shows the worker he is already carrying a gun.  This isn't his first rodeo. 

Dad and Silas gets stinking drunk.  Ruby's son asks if they can pee on them.  No.  Ruby pours water on them to wake them up. 

The strike is on.  A lot of men are on the picket line.  The scabs are being brought in.  Someone shouts:  "Here they come."  "Let's turn them back for Nicky and Dewey."  The men stand in the road and threaten to use violence if the scabs proceed.  The cars with the scabs turn around and leave. 

Ruby asks her husband how are they going to win?  She says:  "We ain't got a chance to win this thing."  Silas is very happy when he sees that the strikers on the picket

 line are shown on local television news. Ruby still says she doesn't want any part of the strike.  Her father tells Ruby that her mama was "real strong" for the union.  

The company talks about cutting the workers off from all credit and evicting them from the company houses.  A company man, Mr. Pennington, comes to speak with Ruby.  He wants her to talk to her husband Silas to get him back to work.  He feels that if Silas will do this, the other men will follow his example. 

Ruby comes to the picket line.  She tells her father and Silas that she is too mad to sit down.  She tells her men:  "I told Pennington we weren't for sale."  She sees a company photographer taking everybody's photo. 

Second month of the strike.  "Here they come.  Let's turn these scabs around."  But this time the police are with the scabs trying to get them through the picket line.  Fights break out and Ruby's father gets knocked by a baton wielded by a policeman. The fight gets too large and the cops decide to retreat along with the scabs. 

The company takes the union to court and the judge decides that no more than three men at a time can be on the picket line.  He also rules that there will be no guns on the picket line.  One of the workers points out that the judge has a conflict of interest since he owns stock in the company. 

The union people say they are just going to violate the court injunction.  But now they can's stop the scabs from coming in to work at the company since no more than three can be on the picket line at the same time.  Ruby comes up with an idea.  Why can't the Brookside women be on the picket line?  Ruby asks Warren to rent a hall for the women.  Warren says he will do it.  At the meeting Ruby tells the women:  "this here is a whole new deal.  .  . . All of us women, we can win this war."  Ruby goes on to say that the company has been pushing the miners around ever since she was a little girl.  They called it Bloody Harlan in the 1930s. 

The next day the women are out in force at the picket line.  The cops give up after all the women lay down in the road. 

Ruby gives Warren some food that she cooked up.  He tastes it but doesn't like it.  She tells him that the dish is fried hog brains.  He says it's the worst thing he has ever tasted in his life.  Warren asks to have some beer, but all they have is moonshine.  Warren drinks the moonshine, but soon he is very sick from the drink. 

People gather at Ruby's place to celebrate Ruby's and Silas's tenth year wedding anniversary. 

Fifth month of the strike.  The media has come to Brookside.  The women are being arrested this time.  Floyd Jones tries to sneak in to work with the scabs.  His father gets very mad at him and tells him:  "You ain't no son of mine."  Men, women and children land in jail.  The media snaps photos of Ruby with her two young children sitting in prison.  This makes for good publicity for the union cause.  A social worker comes in and demands that all the children be pushed out of the jail.  The children leave. 

Ninth month of the strike.   Ruby's father tells her that her mother would be real proud of her and her work for the union.  He goes for a walk with his dog carrying his oxygen tank with him.  While walking, he collapses and passes away. 

The media works with Warren on the story of the women and children in jail.  Warren tells the journalists that Duke Power pays only $1.89 dollars per hour to the miners.  And the men get no lunch break.  Warren starts to have second thoughts about this whole project.  He tells the journalists that they are not going to run the story because it took them too long to get out here.  The best moment has passed. 

Warren and Ruby go around to some of the pensioners to try to get them to help with the union work.  One of the older men says that he gets just $20 dollars per month from his union pension.  Ruby tells the man that they need his help to shut the mine down.  In fact, they need  the help

 of all the pensioners.  At night Warren phones his wife and kids at home.   

Warren wants Ruby to come with him and some others to the Duke Power Stockholders' meeting.  They can raise some money for the strikers and they can get some publicity while they are there.  When Ruby gets back home, Silas tells her not to go down to the picket line any more.  People are going to get hurt and he doesn't want one of them to be his Ruby.  Ruby just says:  "I want you to be proud of me." 

Ruby gets on the bus with Warren and the others.  At night she attends a formal dinner.  She talks with a lawyer who tells her that he has aspired to be one with the miners.  Ruby is discouraged by her talk with the lawyer and she decides she wants to go home.  She says:  "I don't like being paraded in front of people asking for handouts."  She just doesn't feel at home with lawyers and other very educated people.  Warren tells her that these are good people  -- that she just doesn't know anything about theme.  He also tells Ruby that she is one of the strongest people he has ever met. 

At the stock meeting president Alfred Ramsey of Duke Powers says that the workers have their demands, but the company will not give in. Ruby gets up to say her piece.  She says her father died of black lung.  The company could have real safety at the mine, where the workers risk their lives everyday.  She makes the point:  "We have the right to lead a decent life."    

The company starts demolishing the houses for the workers. 

13th month of the strike.  The company has men that start shooting at the strikers.  And the strikers are the ones that get arrested.  Warren says they should sell Duke stock.  This would drive their stock price down and that's a language the company can understand. 

Scabs try to get past the women, but the women fight back. Some of them have baseball bats with them and get some whacks in on the scabs.  Ruby hits the company man Leroy Gilly with her bat.  The women also turn over some of the cars belonging to the scabs. 

Ruby says Silas is having a hard time with being so long idled.  He tells Ruby that he's through with the whole thing.  He says they are going to move to Detroit.  But maybe Detroit ain't big enough a place for Ruby now.  He tells Ruby that she is not the same person that she once was.  Ruby turns the tables on him and says:  "It's you who ain't the same, Silas."  She goes on to say that she is fighting for his job.  Ruby says they started this struggle with him pushing the union and her opposing it.  Now she is pushing for the union and her husband is opposing it.  She adds that she would like for once for her and her husband to be on the same side of the issue.  Silas says that he is sorry.  He adds:  "Don't hide from me."  He also admits that he is scared.  Ruby says well, she's scared too.

Ruby's son asks her if she is a communist?  His teacher has been calling her one.  And doesn't she hate that company man Niles Hatten?  Ruby starts talking about how when this strike is over all the people have got to start to work together and get along with each other.  "But yeah, I hate him."  At night company thugs shoot a number of bullets into Ruby's house scaring the whole family. 

Because of what happened, the women on the picket line give Ruby a gun for her own protection.  The mine supervisor comes with a number of thugs armed with rifles and some pistols.  The picketers, most of them women, respond by pulling their pistols and a few rifles out and aiming them at the thugs.  It's a stand off and the mine supervisor decides to stand down. 

Ruby's brother Floyd moves his family away from the area.  Company thugs start using dynamite to cause a lot of damage to the property of strikers.  For instance, they destroy one of the miner's cars with dynamite. 

The next day on the picket line one of the strikers, Lawrence Perkins, helps chase away the scabs and Leroy Gilly in particular.  Leroy responds by getting out of his pickup truck with his pistol, walking straight up to Lawrence and shooting him in the chest.  Gilly then takes off in his pickup truck. 

The miners learn that Lawrence Perkins has died, leaving behind a wife and two children.  Gilly is in custody at an undisclosed location.  Warren tells the workers not to be discouraged.  They are now close to the end. 

At home Ruby's girl has a bad dream, wakes up and cries about it.  Ruby comforts her.  A lot of car horn honking starts up.  Ruby hears people shouting that the miners have gotten a contract from the company.  Silas comes running over to Ruby and tells her:  "Baby, I'm back at work."  They hug each other.  The miners start a collection for the widow and children of Lawrence Perkins. 

The union men now celebrate that they are Union Local #1974.  A photographer takes a picture of the union members holding a sign saying Union Local #1974.  Warren says that they think it's a good contract.  He asks for a vote to accept the contract.  The contract is readily accepted.  Warren shouts:  "This strike is now over!"  A big cheer comes up from the audience.  Warren then says let's have a big cheer for the Brookside Women's club.  A big cheer goes up again and the women all start hugging each other in celebration of their accomplishment. 

 

 

Now here's a good story of women becoming empowered.  Without the support of the Brookside Women's Club it would have been doubtful if the strike would have been successful.  The women stepped up to the plate, including fighting off male scabs, and even risked being killed by daring to be a part of the picket line in a Kentucky county controlled by the coal interests.  The film shows how powerful women united can be in many situations.  The women did not use the language of the women's movement.  They just acted out of a sense for their own and their families' survival and the right to lead a decent live.  They fought for what is right.  Holly Hunter was just marvelous as Ruby Kincaid.  I just loved hearing her talk with that accent she used. She definitely was one strong woman, as the union representative quickly found out.   

Patrick Louis Cooney,  Ph. D. 

 

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