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Labor History Week, West Virginia: Films for Classroom Use

Learn more about labor history and contributions by West Virginians in the state, nation and world.

Films and Videos

Films and Videos

Classic WV labor films

All films and videos listed below are available for loan from the WV Library Commission Reference Library.


Between a Rock and a Hard Place

NOTE: Contains Rough Language.
New Yorker filmmaker Ken Fink worked for two years in McDowell County as the filmmaker-in-residence for the schools system. He made this film after interviewing hundreds of coal miners. He eventually chose three of three different generations - a retired miner, a black middle-aged miner, and a longhaired fellow who has left the mountains, only to return. They give their attitudes toward their profession, reflecting the deep frustrations involved. A recent book,
Glass Castles, talks about these filmmakers coming to Welch, the county seat of McDowell County.  (59 minutes)

Available: Library Commission VHS Collection 3rd Floor


Coal Miner: Frank Jackson

Illustrates what it is like to have spent your entire life working in the coal mines. Frank Jackson discusses coal mining today and in other times, with scenes in and around the mines. (12 minutes)

Available: Library Commission VHS Collection 3rd Floor


Coal Mining Women
Experiences of women as they enter this traditionally male dominated field and the problems they encounter in their fight to end sex discrimination in the coalfields are related through interviews at home and at work in Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, West Virginia and Colorado. Women coal miners talk about their accomplishments, advantages and disadvantages for their chosen occupation including the compromise they face between their health and safety and the benefits of high wages. (40 minutes)

Available: Library Commission DVD Collection 1st Floor


Coal Wars: The Battle in Rum Creek

In the tradition of Harlan County, USA, this documentary looks at the role women played in the 1989-90 coal strike in the Southern Appalachian coalfields. The location is Dehue - Logan County, WV. The miners and their wives are fighting one of the most intense battles since the 1920s. Clips from other films made about that era, along with photographs, are used to illustrate the conclusion - namely that "its workers again' bosses...forever!" (29 minutes)

 Available: Library Commission VHS Collection 3rd Floor

Company Town

The town of Widen, West Virginia (Clay County) was once a thriving coal mining community. Using interviews, photographs and old film footage, this film recounts the history of Widen and its paternal ruler, coal baron Joseph Gardner Bradley, 1882-1971. It is still considered to be one of the best film portraits of an Appalachian company coal town.  (25 minutes)

Available: Library Commission VHS Collection 3rd Floor


Even the Heavens Weep

This is the story of the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, the largest armed labor conflict in American history. TV star Mike Connors narrates this classic story about the long and bloody history of coal in Appalachia. (55 minutes)

Available: Library Commission VHS Collection 3rd Floor


Fighting For a Breath

This film profiles one of the lay representatives who have continued to help coal miners seeking black lung benefits in the face of overwhelming odds. (29 minutes)

 Available: Library Commission VHS Collection 3rd Floor


In the Company’s Hands

Jack Kelly directed, wrote and produced this comprehensive documentary about the Southern WV coal mine wars. Using archival footage, photographs, and historic songs, Kelly recreates the world of coal mining in the area. The film goes back to the first days of coal mining in WV, which started in 1871 in the New River area near Beckley. Around 1900 many miners from Europe were brought to the coal fields, segregated in their own sections of the company towns. 80 % of all coal in WV was mined in company towns.  The coal mine owners felt they had a divine right to do whatever was necessary to build their companies in “the wilderness.”  Most of the film focuses on the struggle between miners and the oppressive reality of life in company towns where all behavior was closely controlled by the miner owners. (58 minutes)

Available: Library Commission VHS Collection 3rd Floor


Justice in the Coalfields

Justice in the Coalfields examines the United Mine Workers' strike against the Pittston Coal Company that raises fundamental questions about the legal rights of unions and the nature of justice for unionized workers. (58 minutes)

 Available: Library Commission VHS Collection 3rd Floor


John Sayles, one of the leading independent directors in the world, came to WV in 1983 to film one of the most famous confrontations between laborer and owners in the town of Matewan, Mingo County, WV, 1920.  Coal miners, struggling to form a union, are up against company operators and Baldwin-Felts agents. Black and Italian miners, brought in by the company to break the strike, are caught between the two forces. Drawn from an actual incident the characters of Sheriff Sid Hatfield, Mayor Cabell Testerman, C. E. Lively and Few Clothes Johnson were based on real people. The execution of Sheriff Hatfield on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse steps by Baldwin-Felts agents led to the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest armed labor conflict in American history. The film features music by WV native Hazel Dickens and was filmed in Thurmond and the New River Gorge, WV. (130 minutes)

Available: Available: Library Commission DVD Collection 1st Floor; Library Commission VHS Collection 3rd Floor


Mine War on Blackberry Creek

This is a document of the on-going strike of the UMWA coal miners against the A. T. Massey Co., a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell and the Flour Corp. This is an intimate look at both workers and strikebreakers. This area of WV is where mine wars have been fought since the 1920's. (28 minutes)

Available: Library Commission VHS Collection 3rd Floor

Monongah 1907

While Davitt McAteer was the head of mine safety under President Clinton, he made this film. It tells the story of the struggle for mine safety in the U.S., focusing on the tragedy of Monongah, WV, in which 362 miners died. (29 minutes) 

 Available: Library Commission VHS Collection 3rd Floor

Nimrod Workman- To Fit My Own Category

Nimrod Workman was born in 1895 and provided for a family of thirteen working in the coal mines of West Virginia. To Fit My Own Category is an extended visit at his home as he and his family prepare meals, build an addition to the house, dig for yellow root, swap jokes with the neighbors, and enjoy each other's company. Nimrod's reminiscences about coalmining, union organizing in the 1920s and '30s, and eighty-three years in the mountains are intercut with impromptu performances of the traditional ballads and original songs for which he won a National Heritage Award. This program will be of interest to students of labor and coalmining history, West Virginia history, folklore and music, and issues related to aging. (35 minutes)

Available: Library Commission VHS Collection 3rd Floor


Organizing America- A History of the Trade Unions

Using interviews, personal accounts, and archival footage, this program investigates the major events in the history of American trade unions, from the formation of the first “friendly societies” in the 18th century, to the challenges posed by new technologies in the 1980s and 90s. Important issues such as minimum wages, health and safety conditions, discrimination, benefits, job security, and strikes are addressed. The video was made in Charleston, WV, with interviews of WV labor scholars including Dr. Fred Barkey. (38 minutes) 

Available: Library Commission VHS Collection 3rd Floor


Out of Darkness: The Mine Workers’ Story

An electrifying documentary by Academy-Award-winning director Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA) and award-winning video director and editor Bill Davis. Historical film footage and photographs are integrated with first-hand accounts of Mine Workers' history and of the recent battle with the Pittston Coal Group. Accompanied by a moving soundtrack created by Tom Juravich, this 100-minute film represents real life stories with a powerful, dramatic touch. (100 minutes)

Available: Library Commission VHS Collection 3rd Floor 

The Rock That Burns: A Social History of the Southern West Virginia Coalfields

Episode One describes the value of coal as a fuel over the centuries and how the Southern West Virginia coalfields were opened up, the hardships faced by the early coal operators, and the impact of these coalfields on a growing nation. (27 minutes) Episode Two shows life underground: how coal was mined, who mined it, and why, though dirty and dangerous work, mining was looked upon by many as a satisfying occupation that gave them a future in America. (28 minutes) Episode Three portrays life in company towns. Also covered are the company store, schools, the popularity of baseball, and the freedom that Afro-Americans experienced there. (28 minutes) Episode Four explores mining in the 20th century, the quest for unionization, the mine wars, and the introductions of mechanization that ended the hand-loading era. (27 minutes)

Available: Library Commission VHS Collection 3rd Floor


Sit Down and Fight – Walter Reuther and the Rise of the Auto Workers Union 

In 1936, Walter Reuther, a native of Wheeling, WV, led one of the bitterest, bloodiest battles fought in the history of the American labor movement. By sitting down and stopping the machinery of factory production, auto workers forced the Big Three to recognize their union. GM tried turning off the heat and blocking food deliveries and Ford sent members of their private security force to beat up UAW officials, but workers stood their ground. (55 minutes)

Available: Library Commission VHS Collection 3rd Floor


Valley of Darkness

NBC took a look at the Farmington Mine Disaster in Marion County. Sandy Vanocer visited the miners and widows of the men who died. Arch Moore and Ken Hechler are interviewed about coal mining. Such problems as black lung are discussed in depth. (20 minutes) 

Available: Library Commission VHS Collection 3rd Floor


West Virginia Library Commission
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