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From Crimson to Coal Seam | The Nation

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From Crimson to Coal Seam

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This sea change passed others by in the American Federation of Labor, but not John L. Lewis. He first used FDR's National Industrial Recovery Act to rebuild the UMW. Then, in 1935, fearing that a historic opportunity was being squandered, he broke with labor's old guard over the role of his newly formed Committee of Industrial Organizations (predecessor to the Congress). Lewis also knew that the CIO needed experienced organizers, including CP members and former dissidents in his own union like Brophy, Hapgood and Adolph Germer. ("Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?" he explained privately when asked why he was hiring such people.) Hapgood and many other former Lewis critics responded to the CIO's call for obvious reasons of their own: "Industrial unionism with its rallying message of inclusiveness, popular participation, and working-class power represented the kernels of a larger program that might yet be directed toward social transformation."

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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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During the next few years, Hapgood was in the thick of many great victories. As an influential emissary of Lewis, he advised rubber and auto industry sit-down strikers in Akron and Flint and helped the United Electrical Workers win a key union-building fight at RCA in Camden, New Jersey. Bussel's biography also sheds light on Hapgood's role in several less successful--but no less interesting--ventures while he directed the CIO's Shoe Workers Organizing Committee. For anyone who thinks that the thirties were all about labor's "giant step," it's instructive to read the book's detailed account of how a spirited strike by thousands of French-Canadian shoe workers in Maine was crushed by the combined efforts of management, local government, a hostile press and the reactionary Catholic Church.

Hapgood was most in his element in strike situations, preferably ones that recalled his glory days among the miners in Somerset County. However, as Bussel observes, winning union recognition during the New Deal often involved "a delicate balancing act: ensuring that militancy did not degenerate into violence, staving off police intervention, attempting to maintain public sympathy, and defining union objectives in limited terms" to establish the organizational basis for future gains. The onetime union dissident "soon discovered the difficulty of reconciling his commitment to working-class mobilization with the complex demands of union leadership." According to the author, "the bureaucratic and managerial overtones of his new role distressed Hapgood. He feared that he was beginning to manipulate rather than mobilize workers, contradicting the democratic commitments that defined his political identity."

Along with other radicals who were CIO functionaries, Hapgood came under pressure to keep his politics private. Sympathetic to Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas, Hapgood had little ability to promote SP critiques of the New Deal. ("We are all working for CIO unions but is our work helping socialism or not?" he wondered with good reason.) In the early forties--after being rejected for military service as a security risk--Hapgood was appointed CIO regional director in his home state of Indiana. There he helped organize black workers in the service sector and tried to find "alternatives to what he regarded as the pallid world of mature labor relations"--the "dense, legalistic system of industrial relations that was being cemented during World War II [which] threatened to erode the participatory activist orientation of the early industrial union movement."

Hapgood ended his career in tragic circumstances--alcoholic, unhappy, worn down by years of frenetic travel and high-pressure assignments. Nevertheless, he spent his final years resisting the creeping conservatism of postwar American unionism. He was an outspoken critic of discriminatory racial practices within labor--a stance that risked his local popularity. He also courageously resisted the CIO's first moves toward its eventual purge of left-led unions, fearing that "a new red scare would discredit all forces on the left, non-Communist and Communist alike, resulting in political sterility and conformism." Heavily redbaited himself--just as he had been in the twenties--he was forced out of his CIO post in 1948. Less than a year later, he was dead of a heart attack at 49.

Thanks to Bussel's skillful excavation and examination of Hapgood's life, his story didn't end there. It's now available for a new generation of labor activists to read and learn from. For any among them still struggling to reconcile loyalties to democratic socialist ideals and trade unionism, this book offers no simple answers or solutions. But it does suggest the need to find a middle way between selling out and dying so sadly.

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