From Crimson to Coal Seam | The Nation


From Crimson to Coal Seam

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Hapgood was, in short, someone who never stopped trying to reconcile the demands of his own conscience with the sometimes conflicting dictates of organizational policy and the day-to-day pressures of trade-union work. While rooted in a particular era, his story is nevertheless relevant, as Bussel points out, to "succeeding generations of intellectuals...who have looked to the working class and the labor movement...[for] political fulfillment"--only to be "inspired and confounded." From Harvard to the Ranks of Labor should be required reading for the Ivy Leaguers (and other recent college graduates) now being hired as organizers by John Sweeney's AFL-CIO. It might also stimulate some useful reflection among former sixties radicals who have, from their impressive new perches in the labor bureaucracy, promoted student recruitment.

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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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When he finished Harvard in 1920 (he had prepped at Andover), Hapgood was an unlikely convert to union activism. He hadn't been a student radical or a critic of his generation's imperialist war. His father was a boss, president of Columbia Conserve Company, an Indiana cannery widely hailed for its worker-ownership plan. Not surprisingly, Hapgood's background made him far more sympathetic toward Progressive Era experiments in labor-management cooperation than working-class struggle.

His views began to change during a postgraduate tour of the West. There he met Wobblies, worked in a Montana mine and joined the UMW. His initial stint underground led to a job researching hazardous conditions in the Pennsylvania coal fields, where he formed a lifelong friendship with John Brophy, a UMW district official who became his most influential mentor. Sixteen years Hapgood's senior, Brophy was a class-conscious, self-educated immigrant from Britain who cultivated ties with urban intellectuals and rallied the rank and file around demands for nationalization of the mines and democratization of the national union. His nemesis was John L. Lewis.

In his twenties incarnation, the UMW president was autocratic, conservative and very reluctant to confront the open-shop trend among the nation's coal operators. Brophy, on the other hand, took a hard-line approach in the industrywide walkout by more than 500,000 miners in 1922. This sixteen-month struggle provided Hapgood with his first and most formative strike experience. Sent by Brophy to Somerset County, Pennsylvania--a hotbed of UMW activity--Hapgood helped workers and their families resist injunctions, jailings, brutal evictions and baton charges by the "coal and iron police." Because of these sacrifices (and Hapgood's impassioned PR work in liberal journals), the coal miner, says Bussel, "achieved iconographic status, both as a symbol of an oppressed working class and as an agent capable of reforming an unjust economic system."

A "ruthless pragmatist," Lewis was not yet ready to buck that system. So he ended the dispute with a settlement that failed to extend the union's national contract to the nonunion miners who had joined the strike. Brophy, Hapgood and other militants denounced this as a betrayal--and launched the "Save the Union" movement as a platform for Brophy's run against Lewis for the union presidency. Lewis had a formidable political machine that counted votes as deftly as it cut deals with employers. Marred by fraud and intimidation, the election ended in bitter defeat for the insurgents. Hapgood in particular was demonized as a radical disrupter and a tool of the Communist Party (to which he did not belong). Both he and Brophy were driven out of the UMW and forced, at one point, to seek work at the "model company" run by Hapgood's father.

Hapgood then spent several years at loose ends. He took up Socialist Party work, aided the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, campaigned for civil liberties and workers' rights, and tried unsuccessfully to get back into mining (from which he had been blacklisted by labor and management). As a "lone wolf crying in the wilderness," he reached the low point of his career just as, ironically, the Depression, revived labor militancy and the election of Franklin Roosevelt created the conditions for successful mass organizing of industrial workers.

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