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Matewan and Harlan County USA Essay (Critical Writing)


‘Matewan’ is an American drama film by John Sayles that narrates a story of the events of struggle to unionize the West Virginia coal-minors in 1920s. According to Sayles, the Stone Mountain Coal company was the only dominant company in the Western Virginia in the 1920s. Sayles (1987) notes that the Stone Mountain was the only mining company in the region at the time an advantage it used to monopolize every mining business opportunity in the region.

This monopoly forced miners into bondage contract with the company since they had no alternative with regard to employment. In addition, since workers had no alternative place to seek employment, it became easy for the Coal Company to oppress workers by offering low pay and making them work under poor conditions.

To make matters worse, employees did not even know their employers who did not even bother to show up in the company. Instead, company representatives took of every responsibility of supervising their work. Nonetheless, Sayles reveals that the representatives remained excessively oppressive as they used intimidation to force workers to deliver what they wanted (Sayles, 1987).

Sayles noted that apart from threats from company representatives, miners took home petty remuneration with no complaints. In addition, the Coal Company restricted workers freedom as consumers in, which miners had to buy everything from the company from food to clothes.

Equally, the management team forced workers to buy tools from the company to ensure that all the money they obtained circulated back to the company. Further, the Coal Company in most cases charged workers higher prices for their purchases than normal market charges (Sayles, 1987).

Therefore, growing intolerant of the hash and unjust rules, the miners decided to strike against the company. Strike motivation aimed at forcing the Coal Company to offer better working conditions. However, in order to drive their agenda, the miners found it prudent to unionize in order to form a stronger presence and opposition against the Coal Company. This is because the miners felt that it was only through union that they could mount a strong and formidable opposition to force the company to recognize their rights (Sayles, 1987).

Harlan County USA

‘The film Harlan County USA’ dramatizes a coal miner’s strike at the Brookside mine in Harlan County, Kentucky. According to the film director, the Brookside mine belongs to a private owner run under the Eastover Mining Company.

Unlike in Matewan, where workers found motivation to form a union to enable them push their agenda, Harlan County’s workers already belonged to a union called the Southern Labor Union. The union drew membership from the entire Eastern Kentucky to propagate the plight of the workers before company authorities (Kopple, 1976).

The documentary reveals that workers of Brookside mining company felt unhappy with the working condition at the mining site as observed in Matewan. This is because, despite doing a lot of hard work, they received extremely low salaries compared to what their unionized counterparts got.

Kopple (1976) reveals that these workers received a salary ranging from $17 to $32 per day, which was way below the $45 that their counterparts got. In addition, the company had not assured them of safety as several injuries used to occur, estimated at three times above the national average.

Therefore, they opted to strike demanding the right to form their own safety committee elected by the union members. They also wanted their salary increased to $45 per day as received among their counterparts. In addition, the miners wanted the company to pay the standard UMW rate of 75 cents for every ton, remitted directly to their medical and retirement benefits (Kopple, 1976).

The two films also share many similarities with regard to worker motivation and sustenance of morale in the mining industry depicted in US history (Blanchflower and Freeman, 2001). As witnessed in both films, workers unionize in order to form a formidable force to push for the recognition of workers’ rights.

However, the two films differ in the sense that whereas the Matewan workers struggle to unionize, Eastover readily allowed workers’ union. Despite unionized approach, workers in Eastover still fight for their rights seemingly violated by the company in breach of union terms.


Blanchflower, D. D., & Freeman, R. B. (2001). Unionism in the United States and other advanced OECD countries, Retrieved from

Kopple, B. (Executive Producer). (1976). Harlan County USA (YouTube). Bigboogertz. Retrieved from

Sayles, J. (Executive Producer). (1987). Matewan-The Union (YouTube). DukatSG1. Web.

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IvyPanda. (2019, May 30). Matewan and Harlan County USA. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/matewan-and-harlan-county-usa/

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"Matewan and Harlan County USA." IvyPanda, 30 May 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/matewan-and-harlan-county-usa/.

1. IvyPanda. "Matewan and Harlan County USA." May 30, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/matewan-and-harlan-county-usa/.


IvyPanda. "Matewan and Harlan County USA." May 30, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/matewan-and-harlan-county-usa/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "Matewan and Harlan County USA." May 30, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/matewan-and-harlan-county-usa/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'Matewan and Harlan County USA'. 30 May.

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