Documentary a Day: Mine War on Blackberry Creek (1986)

Director: Anne Lewis

This short (around half an hour) documentary is about a strike by West Virginian coal miners that got violent in the early 1980s.  It should be of interest today as some of the main players of the strike continue to make national news headlines: Richard Trumpka, who is now the president of the AFL-CIO, and Don Blankenship, Massey Energy CEO who got national headlines when a mine operated by Massey exploded a few years ago, killing many workers inside.  Massey Energy also engages in a lot of “mountain top removal” which has become quite a contentious issue in West Virginia, for workers, environmentalists and the coal industry.

This documentary accounts for a strike that got violent and was a very important event for the union movement of West Virginia (the unions have consistently been busted since).  Interviews with striking workers, and scabs that were brought in either from other states or interestingly were local police before the strike, are contrasted throughout the film.  The class consciousness of the striking workers is quite high, the violent history of West Virginia’s labor disputes remains an important lesson for them throughout these interviews.  It’s also interesting to note that a high level of solidarity with South African workers is kept with the striking workers who are well aware that Massey is exploiting workers on an international scale and that solidarity is important if they wanted to have a fighting chance.

Another interesting part of the documentary are the interviews with Don Blankenship and the scab workers.  Blankenship makes similar arguments as a boss of a profit-making corporation that the fictional boss in Godard’s Tout Va Bien makes to not only justify his company’s position against the workers, but to defend capitalism itself.  The scabbing workers often either are visibly uncomfortable about the backlash by the community and striking workers and are very open about the fact that they regret what they’re doing, or their excuses rest on relatively empty notions of “freedom” and the “right to work.”

This short film demonstrates the aspect of coal mining that is all too often left out of the current debate on moutain top removal, and reminds me of a Monthly Review article titled “What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism” that links these two important subjects.

The documentary can be viewed in its entirety here:

Links of interest:

Monthly Review Article – on strikes in West Virginia which includes the one this documentary is about

Ambush at Keystone – An account by Maoist Mike Ely about his invovlement in a wildcat strike in West Virginia in the 1970s

Matewan – A late 1980s film about earlier labor disputes in West Virginia.


2 thoughts on “Documentary a Day: Mine War on Blackberry Creek (1986)

  1. This is a very good film. I grew up in nearby Beech Creek, then moved with my mother to Matewan in the ’80s. She was an underground coal miner at Leslie Coal Mines in Sydney, Kentucky. When Massey bought the mine and fired everyone there, because it was a union mine and they hated unions, the miners went on strike for two years. I spent many a day on the picket line with my mom and her brothers and sisters of the union. It was an unsuccessful strike, the reasons why you will hear Don Blankenship crow about in the documentary above. Both my mother’s feet were crushed in an accident and she had to have surgery. Before my mother left work in the mines, she was proud to say she could outlift and outwork most men, but she coughed up black gunk every day.

    Through my mother, I know a lot of the people in this film. My uncle was killed in a conveyor belt accident around 1988. My mom’s friend Rocky Peck did around 1990 at the bottom of a mine shaft, after he was forced to work nonunion to survive. Before my father left work in the mines to work on the railroad, he blew a finger off “capping” (setting off explosives) in the mines.

    The people back home in Matewan have mostly changed their minds, and somehow it became okay to work in nonunion mines like Massey, even though Massey became infamous for safety violations and total contempt of unions. It’s a sad situation. I haven’t been back for almost 15 years now, but I plan to go one more time (that’s probably all I can bear) to see my parents’ graves before I leave the country for retirement. I’m pretty tired of the US.

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