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From Crimson to Coal Seam | The Nation

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From Crimson to Coal Seam

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I first heard about Powers Hapgood while working at the United Mine Workers, an organization he had tried to change fifty years earlier. The "Save the Union" movement, which Hapgood, along with other left-wingers, aided in 1926, failed to topple then-UMW president John L. Lewis. But in the early seventies rank-and-filers campaigning under the banner of "Miners for Democracy" defeated a Lewis successor--the even more despotic W.A. "Tony" Boyle.

About the Author

Steve Early
Steve Early is the author, most recently, of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor (Haymarket). Early spent many years helping...

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Backing this new UMW reform effort was an energetic group of college-educated "outsiders" who, like Hapgood, were drawn to the miners' struggle because of its potential for triggering a broader transformation of organized labor and coal-field communities. The more radical among them took jobs in the mines, as did Hapgood, despite his Harvard pedigree. Others were propelled by the MFD victory directly into UMW staff positions, where union politics was also a severe--if less physically demanding--test for even the most committed idealist.

In the seventies, as in the twenties, almost every UMW battle with the coal operators had an internecine aspect. Loyalists to Boyle quickly regrouped and tried to undermine the new MFD leaders. The latter fell out among themselves, adding to the factionalism, infighting and redbaiting. A growing wildcat-strike movement in the coal fields--over unresolved workplace problems--put the reformers in the uncomfortable position of trying to curb the militancy of members frustrated with the pace of change. Despite the MFD's success in democratizing the union, many of the hopes and expectations it initially aroused were never fulfilled. A decade after the group's election win, almost none of the progressives associated with it--either as "colonizers" in the mines or appointed staffers--were still active in the UMW (although some went on to other unions).

It's too bad that Robert Bussel's excellent new biography of Powers Hapgood wasn't available sooner to help put their experience in historical perspective. A former trade unionist now employed as a labor educator, Bussel's has both an academic's ability to scour the archives and an activist's feel for the real-life context of his subject. His book traces Hapgood's personal and political odyssey from a privileged WASP family to the coal mines of western Pennsylvania and then active engagement in some of the most high-profile labor struggles of the twenties, thirties and forties. A peripatetic organizer and frequent Nation contributor, Hapgood had a Zelig-like ability to be at or near the center of the action--whether in the UMW, the Sacco and Vanzetti defense, Socialist Party campaigns, Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) sit-downs, New Deal labor politics or postwar conflict over reds and racism within unions.

Throughout it all, he was an unusually perceptive and self-critical participant/observer. His private journals represent, in Bussel's view, "a rich chronicle of the American working class, the labor movement, and the practice of radical politics." Heavily mined by the author, these diaries record Hapgood's "interactions with intellectuals, workers, labor leaders, and managers as he attempted to make sense of his experience and adapt to the changing cultural and political circumstances that occurred during his career."

Hapgood's career reflected many of the same hopes and frustrations experienced by other labor leftists, before and since. He continually chafed at the institutional constraints imposed on him by a union movement whose economic and political agenda was far more limited than his own. Yet, during his various stints as a "freelance agitator," Hapgood often felt marginalized and ineffective--cut off from the resources, legitimacy and popular base that only mass organizations can provide. His biggest compromise came in the mid-thirties, when he reconciled with Lewis, his onetime archenemy in the UMW. This permitted him to play an active role in the great organizing upsurge that built the CIO. However, within a few short years, "he found himself squeezed between the militancy of the workers, the demands of the wartime state, and the CIO leadership's increasing hesitation to offend the Roosevelt Administration."

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