In 1926, one of the leanest years the labor movement has known, a group of dissident miners challenged the rule of United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis. That may seem odd to us today, for we remember Lewis as the defiant founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the great labor insurgent who inspired millions of workers to build America’s industrial unions in the 1930s. But during the 1920s, many miners saw Lewis as a hidebound labor boss, a cowering autocrat who responded to industry’s assault on their union not by fighting back but by falling back into a defensive crouch. To them, Lewis seemed more intent on stifling rank-and-file militants than battling despotic coal companies.
During the 1926 campaign for Mine Workers president, Lewis bullied key dissidents into withdrawing their support for John Brophy, his fiercely democratic opponent, and several members of Brophy’s slate who wouldn’t drop off the ticket were arbitrarily thrown off by union election officers. Officially, Lewis won the election in a landslide, but there was massive ballot fraud during the vote. When Brophy’s campaign manager, Powers Hapgood, showed up at the union’s 1927 convention to protest, three of Lewis’s men pummeled him in a hotel room before it began. When Hapgood tried to speak at the convention, Lewis had him silenced and he was beaten again on the convention floor.Details of the 1926 election are drawn from Robert Bussel’s invaluable biography of Powers Hapgood, From harvard to the Ranks of Labor
We can understand, then, the shock the dwindling Mine Workers opposition felt when first Brophy and then Hapgood went back to work with Lewis in the mid-1930s to help build the CIO. In a letter defending his decision, Hapgood, a Harvard-educated radical, reassured a skeptical friend that he was still committed to “the complete emancipation of the working class.” But to achieve that goal, Hapgood argued, “we have to use institutions, which, because composed of human beings, are not perfect.” Hapgood urged his friend to look beyond Lewis’s flaws and join forces with the CIO leader now that he was using his “power and fighting ability” to combat American business. “If I turn out to be wrong,” he wrote, “we will at least have climbed a few flights of steps in the long struggle from the depths.”
Seventy years later, the AFL-CIO is again plumbing the lower depths, and once again a fight has erupted within labor to determine the steps unions should take to climb out of the abyss. This time the insurgency is led by Andrew L. Stern, president of the fast-growing Service Employees International Union. (Full disclosure: I worked in SEIU’s communications department from 1999 to 2001, and I’ve consulted on several campaigns for the union since then. I did not consult with SEIU about the opinions in this review,...
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