Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"A Business without a Boss": William and Powers Hapgood

In the waning days of World War II, a former prisoner of war returned home to Indianapolis to an uncertain future. At loose ends, the twenty-two-year-old army private first class—Kurt Vonnegut Jr.—told an uncle that he might be interested in working for a labor union after his discharge from the service. “Unions were admirable instruments for extorting something like economic justice from employers then,” noted Vonnegut in the prologue to his 1979 novel Jailbird.

Vonnegut shared his plans with his uncle Alex, a Harvard University graduate. Although politically conservative himself, and someone who might believe his nephew’s flirtation with a unions a “ridiculous dream,” Alex Vonnegut arranged a meeting with a fellow Harvard alumnus who had some experience in the labor movement. The three men, plus Kurt Vonnegut’s father, met for lunch at Stegemeir’s Restaurant in downtown Indianapolis.

On that July afternoon in 1945 Kurt Vonnegut met for the first time Powers Hapgood, “an ordinary-looking Middle Western  Anglo-Saxon in a cheap business suit.” After college, this son of a businessman and member of a respectable middle-class Indianapolis family had worked in coal mines in America and around the world. Later he endeavored to better the lives of working people by defending anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, supporting striking coal miners in Pennsylvania, and campaigning against United Mine Workers of America president John L. Lewis.

Hapgood had grown accustomed to perplexed company officials and policemen asking him, “What’s a nice young Harvard guy like you doing mixed up with a bunch of radicals?” While others judged, however, Kurt Vonnegut became entranced with Hapgood, finding him “still full of ideas of how victory might yet be snatched from the jaws of defeat.”

His activities on behalf of workers often landed Hapgood in jail, and a court appearance (he had to testify about violence on a picket line) made him late for lunch with the Vonneguts. “The judge was fascinated, and almost everybody else in court was, too—presumably by such unselfish high adventures,” noted Kurt Vonnegut, who used Hapgood and his stories as the basis for the character of union organizer Kenneth Whistler in Jailbird. When the judge finally asked Hapgood why a man from a distinguished family with such a fine education decided to live as he did, the labor activist replied, “Why? Because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir.”

If the judge had known more about Hapgood’s family, he might not have wondered about the Harvard graduate’s interest in social justice. Hapgood’s father, William Powers Hapgood, may have been a businessman, but he operated nothing like the other titans of industry of his day. William Hapgood attempted to install a system of workplace democracy among the employees of his Indianapolis canning factory, the Columbia Conserve Company, which manufactured condensed soup, catsup, boned chicken, and other items packed and sold under private brands throughout the country. Three days before Christmas in 1917, workers at the plant learned they were to be responsible for determining the length of time they worked, how much they were to be paid, their share of production, and all other policies involved in running a business. They also were to share in any profits—an almost unheard of business practice at that time—and eventually used them to buy the firm in which they toiled.

Initially the plan met with skepticism from those who would be its chief beneficiaries. “Those [workers] who understood did not believe me, and very few understood,” noted William Hapgood. “Why should they? Their own experiences, as well as those of their forefathers, told them it was all a lie.” Hapgood struggled mightily over the next few years to convince the company’s employees of his sincerity and to inspire confidence in their own abilities. His efforts, including lending a hand on the shop floor, produced dividends; by 1930 the firm’s approximately 150 workers collectively controlled the majority of the company’s voting stock.

With control of the company, workers based pay on the basis of need, with the maximum salary (received by William Hapgood) set at $100 a week, and the minimum set at $15 per week. In addition to paid vacations and time off for sickness and other necessary absences, workers received such fringe benefits as a pension plan, medical care, accident insurance, free meals in the company’s cafeteria, and free classes in various subjects at the plant. Responding to other businessmen who considered such fringe benefits as destroying a worker’s moral fiber and who defended wholeheartedly the “law of the survival of the fittest,” William Hapgood inquired of them if they applied that law to their own children.

Eventually the Hapgoods worked together at the Columbia Conserve Company. The father’s idea on workplace democracy and the son’s belief in labor activism, however, came into conflict and sparked a crisis at the firm that led to Powers Hapgood’s resignation. The experiment at the Indianapolis business failed, but the fringe benefits enjoyed by workers at Columbia are now standard fare in many union contracts with employers.

Powers Hapgood, who had become regional director for the Congress of Industrial Organizations, died in 1949. His father followed him in death eleven years later. To some, the Hapgoods may just be a footnote in history. However, to paraphrase George Orwells’ assessment of Mohandas Gandhi, when they are regarded simply as businessmen and labor leaders, what a clean smell the Hapgoods have managed to leave behind.


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