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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."

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.

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.

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."

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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