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John L. Lewis
John L. Lewis.jpg
Lewis in c. 1927
9th President of the United Mine Workers
In office
1919–1960
Preceded by Frank Hayes
Succeeded by Thomas Kennedy
1st President of the Congress of Industrial Organizations
In office
1936–1940
Preceded by new organization
Succeeded by Philip Murray
Personal details
Born
John Llewellyn Lewis

(1880-02-12)February 12, 1880
Cleveland, Lucas County, Iowa, U.S.
Died June 11, 1969(1969-06-11) (aged 89)
Alexandria, Virginia, U.S.
Political party Republican
Spouses
Myrta E. Bell
(m. 1907; died 1942)
Children Margaret Mary, Kathryn, and John, Jr.
Occupation Miner, labor leader

John Llewellyn Lewis (February 12, 1880 – June 11, 1969) was an American leader of organized labor who served as president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) from 1920 to 1960. A major player in the history of coal mining, he was the driving force behind the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which established the United Steel Workers of America and helped organize millions of other industrial workers in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. After resigning as head of the CIO in 1941, Lewis took the United Mine Workers out of the CIO in 1942 and in 1944 took the union into the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

Lewis was a Republican, but he played a major role in helping Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt win a landslide victory for the US Presidency in 1936. He was an isolationist, and broke with Roosevelt in 1940 on FDR's anti-Nazi foreign policy. Lewis was an effective, aggressive fighter and strike leader who gained high wages for his membership while steamrolling over his opponents, including the United States government. Lewis was one of the most controversial and innovative leaders in the history of labor, gaining credit for building the industrial unions of the CIO into a political and economic powerhouse to rival the AFL. But during World War II, he was widely criticized by calling nationwide coal strikes, which critics believed to be damaging to the American economy and war effort.

His massive leonine head, forest-like eyebrows, firmly set jaw, powerful voice, and ever-present scowl thrilled his supporters, angered his enemies, and delighted cartoonists. Coal miners for 40 years hailed him as their leader, whom they credited with bringing high wages, pensions and medical benefits. After his successor died shortly after taking office, Lewis hand-picked Tony Boyle, a miner from Montana, to take the presidency of the union in 1963.

Lewis1946
Time magazine was hostile to Lewis; a 1946 cover illustration depicted him as a dangerous volcano.

Early life and rise to power

Lewis was born in or near Cleveland, Lucas County, Iowa (distinct from the present township of Cleveland in Davis County), to Thomas H. Lewis and Ann (Watkins) Lewis, immigrants from Llangurig, Wales. Cleveland was a company town, built around a coal mine developed one mile east of the town of Lucas. His mother and grandparents were members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), and the boy was raised in the church's views regarding a just social order that favored the poor. While his maternal grandfather was an RLDS pastor and Lewis periodically donated to his local RLDS church for the rest of his life, there is no definite evidence that he formally joined the Midwestern Mormon denomination.

Lewis attended three years of high school in Des Moines and at the age of 17 went to work in the Big Hill Mine at Lucas. In 1906, Lewis was elected a delegate to the United Mine Workers (UMW) national convention. In 1907, he ran for mayor of Lucas and launched a feed-and-grain distributorship. Both were failures and Lewis returned to coal mining.

He moved to Panama, Illinois, where in 1909 he was elected president of the UMW local. In 1911 Samuel Gompers, the head of the AFL, hired Lewis as a full-time union organizer. Lewis traveled throughout Pennsylvania and the Midwest as an organizer and trouble-shooter, especially in coal and steel districts.

United Mine Workers of America

John--L-Lewis-United-Mine-Workers-President-Lucas-Iowa
John L. Lewis, United Mine Workers President plaque located in Lucas, Iowa

After serving as statistician and then as vice-president for the UMWA, Lewis became that union's acting president in 1919. On November 1, 1919, he called the first major coal union strike, and 400,000 miners walked off their jobs. President Woodrow Wilson obtained an injunction, which Lewis obeyed, telling the rank and file, "We cannot fight the Government." In 1920, Lewis was elected president of the UMWA. He quickly asserted himself as a dominant figure in what was then the largest and most influential trade union in the country.

Coal miners worldwide were sympathetic to socialism, and in the 1920s, Communists systematically tried to seize control of UMWA locals. William Z. Foster, the Communist leader, opposed dual unions in favor of organizing within the UMWA. The radicals were most successful in the bituminous (soft) coal regions of the Midwest, where they used local organizing drives to gain control of locals, sought a national labor political party, and demanded federal nationalization of the industry. Lewis, committed to cooperation among labor, management, and government, took tight control of the union.

He placed the once-autonomous districts under centralized receivership, packed the union bureaucracy with men directly beholden to him, and used UMWA conventions and publications to discredit his critics. The fight was bitter but Lewis used armed force, red-baiting, and ballot-box stuffing and, in 1928, expelled the leftists. As Hudson (1952) shows, they started a separate union, the National Miners' Union. In Southern Illinois, amidst widespread violence, the Progressive Mine Workers of America challenged Lewis but were beaten back. After 1935, Lewis invited the radical organizers to work for his CIO organizing drives, and they soon gained powerful positions in CIO unions, including auto workers and electrical workers.

Lewis was often denounced as a despotic leader. He repeatedly expelled his political rivals from the UMWA, including John Walker, John Brophy, Alexander Howat and Adolph Germer. Communists in District 26 (Nova Scotia), including Canadian labor legend J. B. McLachlan, were banned from running for the union executive after a strike in 1923. McLachlan described him as "a traitor" to the working class. Lewis nonetheless commanded great loyalty from many of his followers, even those he had exiled in the past.

A powerful speaker and strategist, Lewis used the nation's dependence on coal to increase the wages and improve the safety of miners, even during several severe recessions. He masterminded a five-month strike, ensuring that the increase in wages gained during World War I would not be lost. In 1921 Lewis challenged Samuel Gompers, who had led the AFL for nearly forty years, for the presidency of the AFL. William Green, one of his subordinates within the Mine Workers at the time, nominated him; William Hutcheson, the President of the Carpenters, supported him. Gompers won. Three years later, on Gompers' death, Green succeeded him as AFL President.

Kennedy tetlow lewis
John L. Lewis (right), President of the United Mine Workers (UMW), confers with Thomas Kennedy (left), Secretary-Treasurer of the UMW, and Pery Tetlow (center), president of UMW District 17, at the War Labor Board conference of January 15, 1943, discussing the anthracite coal miners' strike.

In 1924, Lewis a Republican, framed a plan for a three-year contract between the UMWA and the coal operators, providing for a pay rate of $7.50 per day ($128 in 2022 dollars). President Coolidge and then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover were impressed with the plan, and Lewis was offered the post of Secretary of Labor in Coolidge's cabinet. Lewis declined, a decision he later regretted. Without government support, the contract talks failed and coal operators hired non-union miners. The UMWA treasury was drained, but Lewis was able to maintain the union and his position within it. He was successful in winning the 1925 anthracite (hard coal) miners' strike by his oratorical skills.

Great Depression

Lewis supported Republican Herbert Hoover for US President in 1928; in 1932, as the Great Depression bore brutally on the mining camps, he officially backed Hoover but quietly supported Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1936, his union made the largest single contribution, over $500,000, to Roosevelt's successful campaign for reelection.

Lewis was appointed a member of the Labor Advisory Board and the National Labor Board of the National Recovery Administration in 1933; he used these positions to raise wages of miners and reduce competition. He gambled on a massive membership drive and won, as he piggybacked on FDR's popularity: "The President wants you to join the UMW!" Coal miners represented many ethnic groups, and Lewis shrewdly realized that they shared a faith in Roosevelt; he was careful not to antagonize any of the immigrant ethnic groups, and he appealed to African-American members as well.

He secured the passage of the Guffey Coal Act in 1935, which was superseded by Guffey-Vinson Act in 1937 after the 1935 act was declared by the US Supreme Court to be unconstitutional. Both of acts were favorable to miners. Lewis had long had the idea that the highly competitive bituminous coal industry, with its sharp ups and downs and cut-throat competition, could be stabilized by a powerful union that set a standard wage scale and could keep recalcitrant owners in line with selective strikes. The acts made that possible, and coal miners entered a golden era. At all times, Lewis rejected socialism and promoted competitive capitalism.

Founding the CIO

With the open support of the AFL and the tacit support of the UMWA, Franklin D. Roosevelt was nominated and elected President in 1932, and Lewis benefited from the New Deal programs that followed. Many of his members received relief. Lewis helped secure passage of the Guffey Coal Act of 1935, which raised prices and wages, but it was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Thanks to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, union membership grew rapidly, especially in the UMWA. Lewis and the UMW were major financial backers of Roosevelt's reelection in 1936 and were firmly committed to the New Deal.

At the AFL's annual convention in 1934, Lewis gained an endorsement from them of the principle of industrial unionism, as opposed to limitations to skilled workers. His goal was to unionize 400,000 steel workers, using his UMWA resources (augmented by leftists he had expelled in 1928). With the leaders of nine other large industrial unions and the UMWA in November 1935, Lewis formed the "Committee for Industrial Organization" to promote the organization of workers on an industry-wide basis. Key allies were Philip Murray (the UMWA man Lewis picked to head the steel union); Sidney Hillman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA); and David Dubinsky of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU).

The entire CIO group was expelled from the AFL in November 1938 and became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), with Lewis as the first president. The growth of the CIO was phenomenal in steel, rubber, meat, autos, glass and electrical equipment. In early 1937, his CIO affiliates won collective-bargaining contracts with two of the most powerful anti-union corporations, General Motors and United States Steel. General Motors surrendered as a result of the great Flint Sit-Down Strike, during which Lewis negotiated with company executives, Governor Frank Murphy of Michigan, and President Roosevelt. U.S. Steel conceded without a strike, as Lewis secretly negotiated an agreement with Myron Taylor, chairman of U.S. Steel.

The CIO gained enormous strength and prestige from the victories in automobiles and steel and escalated its organizing drives, targeting industries that the AFL had long claimed, especially meatpacking, textiles, and electrical products. The AFL fought back and gained more members, but the two rivals spent much of their energy fighting each other for members and for power inside local Democratic organizations.

Lewis rhetoric

Journalist C. L. Sulzberger described Lewis's rhetorical skill in the "Crust of Bread" speech. Operators who opposed a contract were often shamed into agreement by Lewis's accusations. A typical Lewis speech to operators would go, "Gentlemen, I speak to you for the miners' families.... The little children are gathered around a bare table without anything to eat. They are not asking for a $100,000 yacht like yours, Mr...." (here, he would gesture with his cigar toward an operator), "...or for a Rolls-Royce limousine like yours, Mr. ..." (staring at another operator). They are asking only for a slim crust of bread."

World War II

In the presidential election of 1940, Lewis rejected Roosevelt and supported Republican Wendell Willkie. The reasons for Lewis' souring on FDR and his New Deal are still contested. Some cite his frustration over FDR's response to the General Motors and "Little Steel" strikes of 1937, or the President's purported rejection of Lewis' proposal to join him on the 1940 Democratic ticket. Others point to power struggles within the CIO as the motivation for Lewis' actions. Lewis drew fierce criticism from most union leaders. Reuben Soderstrom, President of the Illinois State Federation of Labor, ripped his former ally apart in the press, saying he had become "the most imaginative, the most efficient, the most experienced truth-twisting windbag that this nation has yet produced." Lewis failed to persuade his fellow members. On election day, 85% of CIO members supported Roosevelt, thus rejecting Lewis's leadership. He resigned as president of the CIO but kept control of the UMWA.

Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lewis was staunchly opposed to American entry into World War II. Initially, he tapped into the anti-militarism that animated the left wing of the CIO. He publicly opposed the prospect of a peacetime draft as "associated with fascism, totalitarianism and the breakdown of civil liberties," claiming in his 1940 Labor Day speech that there was "something sinister about the attempt to force conscription upon our nation, with no revelation of the purposes for which conscription is sought." Lewis' opposition to American intervention continued after the leftist coalition against it had splintered. In August 1941 he joined Herbert Hoover, Alfred Landon, Charles Dawes, and other prominent conservatives in their appeal to Congress to halt President Roosevelt's "step-by-step projection of the United States into undeclared war." This action earned him the enmity of those on the left, including Lee Pressman and Len De Caux.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Lewis threw his full support behind FDR's government, stating "When the nation is attacked every American must rally to its support. All other consideration becomes insignificant...With all other citizens I join in the support of our government to the day of its ultimate triumph over Japan and all other enemies."

In October 1942, Lewis withdrew the UMWA from the CIO. Six months later, he substantively violated organized labor's no-strike pledge, spurring President Roosevelt to seize the mines. The strike damaged the public's perception of organized labor generally and Lewis specifically; the Gallup poll of June 1943 showed 87% disapproval of Lewis. Some have asserted that Lewis' actions produced shortages which crippled wartime production in the defense industry.

Postwar

In the postwar years, Lewis continued his militancy; his miners went on strikes or "work stoppages" annually. In 1945 to 1950, he led strikes that President Harry S. Truman denounced as threats to national security. In response, industry, railroads and homeowners rapidly switched from coal to oil.

After briefly affiliating with the AFL, Lewis broke with them again over signing non-Communist oaths required by the 1947 Taft–Hartley Act, making the UMW independent. Lewis, never a Communist, still refused on principle to allow any of his officials to take the non-Communist oath required by the Taft–Hartley Act; the UMW was therefore denied legal rights protected by the National Labor Relations Board. He denounced Taft-Hartley as authorizing "government by injunction" and refused to follow its provisions, saying he would not be dictated to.

Lewis secured a welfare fund financed entirely by the coal companies but administered by the union. In May 1950, he signed a new contract with the coal operators, ending nine months of regional strikes and opening an era of peaceful negotiations that brought wage increases and new medical benefits, including regional hospitals in the hills.

1950s

John-L-Lewis-Pennsylvania-meeting-1938
Lewis at a labor rally in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, meeting with mine workers.

In the 1950s, Lewis won periodic wage and benefit increases for miners and led the campaign for the first Federal Mine Safety Act in 1952. Lewis tried to impose some order on a declining industry through collective bargaining, and maintaining standards for his members by insisting that small operators agree to contract terms that effectively put many of them out of business. Mechanization nonetheless eliminated many of the jobs in his industry, while scattered non-union operations persisted.

Lewis continued to be as autocratic within the UMWA, padding the union payrolls with his friends and family, ignoring or suppressing demands for a rank-and-file voice in union affairs. Finally in 1959 the passage of the Landrum–Griffin Act forced reform. It ended the practice where the UMWA had kept a number of its districts in trusteeship for decades, meaning that Lewis appointed union officers who otherwise would have been elected by the membership.

Lewis retired in early 1960. The highly paid membership slipped below 190,000 because of mechanization, strip mining, and competition from oil. He was succeeded as president by Thomas Kennedy, who served briefly until his death in 1963. He was succeeded by Lewis's anointed successor, W. A. Boyle, known as Tony, a miner from Montana. He was considered just as dictatorial as Lewis, but without any of the longtime leader's skills or vision.

Retirement and final years

  • In 1965, Lewis received the first Eugene V. Debs Award for his service to Industrial Unionism.

Lewis retired to his family home, the Lee–Fendall House in Alexandria, Virginia, where he had lived since 1937. He lived there until his death on June 11, 1969. His passing elicited many kind words and fond remembrances, even from former rivals. "He was my personal friend," wrote Reuben Soderstrom, the President of the Illinois AFL-CIO, who had once lambasted Lewis as an "imaginative windbag," upon news of his death. Lewis, he said, would forever be remembered for "making almost a half million poorly paid and poorly protected coal miners the best paid and best protected miners in all the world." He is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois.

See also

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