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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Daniel H. Pollitt, April 17, 1991. Interview L-0064-9. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The Duke Power strike at Brookside Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky

Pollitt recalls in vivid detail the strike of Duke Power workers at the Brookside Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky. In noting that the strike was typically referred to as "Bloody Harlan," Pollitt describes the violent aspects of the strike. As a member of the Citizens' Inquiry into the Brookside Strike, Pollitt witnessed the events of the strike and the deplorable conditions under which Brookside Mine workers and their family lived and he offers his perspective on the outcome of the strike.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Daniel H. Pollitt, April 17, 1991. Interview L-0064-9. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

DANIEL POLLITT:
The Duke Power Company strike up in Harlan County, Brookside Mine. Duke Power decided that it needed a source of coal to generate the electricity so it bought two mines up in Harlan County.
ANN MCCOLL:
Is this is Kentucky?
DANIEL POLLITT:
Yes. "Bloody Harlan" they call it because it was bloody. They were non-union mines and the United Mine Workers went in and tried to organize it and did organize it. Brookside, which is the same as Duke Power Company, refused to bargain with them in good faith. So they started to picket the place and Duke hired people to guard the mines on work release. They got them out of the Kentucky prison.
ANN MCCOLL:
To guard it?
DANIEL POLLITT:
Yes, to guard it. Prisoners on work release.
ANN MCCOLL:
Prisoners were guarding the mines?
DANIEL POLLITT:
Yes, and they started to shoot and they were up on a hill where you go up on the hill and you go down into the mine and there is a little curvy road down below. We would picket there. There mine workers picketing there and they'd have a fire going to keep warm. They'd start shooting at them and they'd shoot back. Then the governor didn't declare marshall law, but he sent the State Troopers to control the place. Then the coal company got an injuction against our picketing from a local judge by the name of Hogg who owned a couple of mines as well. So they enjoined the mine workers. Then the women went out and the women would go and picket and then they'd get the strike breakers. They'd get six patrol cars, cop cars, and then twenty scabs and then a couple of patrol cars and they'd come up the road. Hell, that was dangerous because some of our people would shoot at the tires and stuff. Then they'd meet the women who'd be sitting there blocking the highway.
ANN MCCOLL:
These would be local women?
DANIEL POLLITT:
Yes, the wives. And then they would be arrested and they wouldn't post bail. They wanted to fill the jails and stuff.
ANN MCCOLL:
How many women are you talking about?
DANIEL POLLITT:
I'm talking about fifty of them. They were carrying the battle. Their daddy had been a mine worker and their granddaddy and they'd killed this guy down in the holler and you know, the animosities ran deep. There wasn't too much publicity to any of this, so they thought if they could have a public hearing on what was doing up there they could bring the press.
ANN MCCOLL:
Why do think it wasn't getting publicity with all that going on?
DANIEL POLLITT:
It was not so abnormal in Harlan County.
ANN MCCOLL:
That's because it was called "Bloody Harlan?"
DANIEL POLLITT:
Yes. And so they created an ad hoc committee on the Brookside strike. I was the chairman of it.
ANN MCCOLL:
This was an organization called "Citizens Inquiry into the Brookside Strike"?
DANIEL POLLITT:
Yes, this was the Inquiry into the Brookside Strike. We had Fred Harris who had been the Senator from Oklahoma and ran for President and Willard Wurtz who had been the Secretary of Labor under LBJ and W.W. Finlator who is a minister, and the daughter of a guy named Mitchell who had run against John L. Lewis for presidency of the mine workers. She's currently at Cornell School on Labor Relations. I don't know, there is somebody now in the Children's Foundation. So we had men and women and there were maybe eight or nine of us. We went up and we had three days of hearings. It was open to everybody that wanted to come. And we had CBS and NBC and the "Louisville Courier Journal" people. Fred Harris wrote an article for "Harper's Magazine" afterwards. Willard Wurtz wrote a series of articles for the "Washington Post" afterwards. So it got a lot of publicity. And Dave Barber at Duke who was then the head of Political Science. All this is because of the Duke Power Company. So they wanted some people from North Carolina and then famous outsiders who would draw the press. There they were talking about the machine gun which they'd mounted up there on the mine property.
ANN MCCOLL:
Duke Power had?
DANIEL POLLITT:
Duke Power Company had the machine gun up there and we asked the President of Brookside, the subsidiary, to come and testify. He wouldn't come. But the others talked about the machine gun, so CBS took their camera up there to see the machine gun and they got tossed down the hill by the guards who were lifers out of the Kentucky penitentiary. We decided we would have it in the morning when we'd break into small committees and go see people who wouldn't come to see us. I had to go see the guy. He wouldn't see us, thank God. I went with Willard Wurtz and Fred Harris. So then we reported back and then we talked about other things other than the strike. What to do in this community. Everybody has bad teeth and the water is terrible because the water comes out of the hillside where they've been mining and somehow it's all poisoned. So nobody drinks the water. They all drink Seven Up or something, so their teeth are gone by the time they are sixteen or seventeen. Then there's the housing. It's all hollows and hills and there's a stream and you follow the stream. Every so often there's a wide place and you have the company towns and they are all four room houses on stilts and there is no water in them. There is a pump where you go and take your bucket and you pump. And it's mud because there's been water there.
ANN MCCOLL:
How old are these houses? I mean, are these the houses they were living in in the seventies?
DANIEL POLLITT:
Yes. This was not that long ago. Then they have outhouses. They don't have indoor plumbing, so you have the outhouses. Then the toilet paper goes down and they overhang the stream. Then the stream in the springtime comes and overflows and carries the toilet paper. All these trees on the side of the stream have toilet paper hanging from them. It's just terrible. Then there's no health. They are well-paid, but if you've got to work in the mine, you have to live there. It's company owned and life if miserable and dangerous. Very dangerous. Everybody has a broken back or something. And the store was owned by the company as a convenience. You could go into Harlan, which was maybe twenty miles from where Brookside was. It was on the side of a brook, which is why the called it Brookside. And black lung. This was before they had the Black Lung Bill and everybody was coughing. Everybody over forty-five had black lung. So we talked about all the community problems and we issued a report which was all of these things and then we recommended a series. Why doesn't Duke and the United Mine Workers take this opportunity to make the desert road, you know, bloom like a garden and stuff. Why can't they do something? Why don't they get some dentists up there and some Medicare and some Peace Corps people and some Teacher Corps people? Duke put in some money and the mine workers put in some money, and get the Vista volunteers and just show that in Appalachia there is a possibility of creating a very good life and so on. So we went to see the President of the Duke Power Company in his office with our proposal. First we saw the President of the mine workers. Forget the wage per hour business and look at something else, a great opportunity. The mine workers were receptive but the Duke Power Company wasn't. They were going to start to picket. The mine workers started to picket the Duke Power annual stockholders meetings and they went to the banks and said, "Don't loan any more money to Duke Power Company or we'll withdraw our pension funds." So there was pressure and they did sign the standard contract, but they didn't do any of the other things that we could have done.