Museum of the Islands

Preserving the past for the future on Pine Island, Florida

John L. Lewis

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. After resigning as head of the CIO in 1941, he took the Mine Workers out of the CIO in 1942 and in 1944 took the union into the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

 A leading liberal, he played a major role in helping Franklin D. Roosevelt win a landslide in 1936, but as an isolationist broke with Roosevelt in 1940 on FDR’s anti-Nazi foreign policy. Lewis was a brutally effective and 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, yet was widely hated as he called nationwide coal strikes damaging the American economy in the middle of World War II. 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 the benevolent dictator who brought high wages, pensions and medical benefits, and damn the critics..

Lewis was born in Cleveland, Iowa, the son of Thomas H. Lewis and Ann Watkins Lewis, both of whom had immigrated from Wales. Cleveland was a company town built around a coal mine one mile east of Lucas. The mother was a Mormon and the boy adopted her rigid views regarding alcohol and sexual propriety, but not her religion. He 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 1907 he ran for mayor of Lucas and launched a feed-and-grain distributorship. Both were failures and Lewis returned to coal mining; in 1906 was elected a delegate to the United Mine Workers (UMW) national convention. He moved to Panama, Illinois, and in 1909 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.

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, as 400,000 miners walked off their jobs. President Wilson obtained an injunction, which Lewis obeyed, telling the rank and file, “We cannot fight the Government.”. In 1920 he was elected president of the UMWA. Lewis 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 Miners of America of America challenged Lewis, but was 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 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. Lewis challenged Samuel Gompers, who had led the AFL for nearly forty years, for the Presidency of the AFL in 1921. 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.

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 (about $93.29 in 2009 dollars when adjusted for inflation). President Coolidge and then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover were impressed with the plan and Lewis was actually offered the post of Secretary of Labor in Coolidge’s cabinet. Lewis declined, a move 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 miners’ strike by his oratorical skills.

Lewis supported Republican Herbert Hoover for 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, and used it to raise wages of miners and reduce competition. He gambled on a massive membership drive, and won, as he piggy-backed on FDR’s popularity: “The President wants you to join the UMW!” Coal miners represented many ethnic groups, and Lewis shrewdly realized they shared a faith in Roosevelt; he was careful not to antagonize any of the ethnic groups, and he appealed to African American members as well. He secured the passage of the Guffey Coal Act in 1935, and a second Guffey Act in 1937, both of them 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 Guffey acts made this possible, and coal entered a golden era. At all times Lewis rejected socialism and promoted competitive capitalism.

With the support of the AFL and 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 was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Thanks to the NationaLabor Relations Act of 1935 (the Wagner Act), union membership grew rapidly, especially in the UMWA. Lewis and the UMW were major backers of Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936, and were firmly committed to the New Deal.

Lewis obtained from the American Federation of Labor, at its annual convention in 1934, an endorsement 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 ClothingWorkers 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 ofIndustrial 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, now targeting industries that the AFL have long claimed, especially meatpacking, textiles, and electrical products. The AFL fought back, and gained even more members, but the two rivals spent much of their energy fighting each other for members and for power inside local Democratic organizations.

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.”

In the Presidential election of 1940, Lewis, heavily dependent on pro-Soviet organizers, rejected Roosevelt and supported Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate, fearing Roosevelt’s intention for American involvement in World War II at a time in which the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of non-aggression between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany–signed on August 23, 1939– facilitated the Comintern’s support for a policy of “non-intervention.” Taking its cue from Soviet foreign policy, the Communist Party USA advocated strict neutrality and strongly opposed American entry into World War II. However on election day 85% of CIO members voted for Roosevelt, thus rejecting Lewis’s leadership. Lewis resigned as president of the CIO, but kept control of the UMWA and withdrew it from the CIO. After the German attack on the Soviets and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the miners issued a no-strike pledge “for the duration” in support of the war effort. However, Lewis repeatedly violated the pledge, most notably in 1943 when half a million workers walked off the job. Throughout World War II Lewis repeatedly called his miners out on strike, defying the government, outraging public opinion, and strengthening the hand of anti-union Congressmen. Public opinion was extremely angry and demanded and got tough new anti-union laws. President Roosevelt, a traditional ally of labor, felt he had no choice but to seize the mines. Even so, some steel mills closed for weeks and power shortages crippled production.

In the postwar years he continued his militancy; his miners went on strikes or “work stoppages” annually. In 1945, 1946, 1948, and 1949–1950, 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 over signing non-Communist oaths required by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, making the UMW independent again. Lewis, never a Communist himself, refused 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 made an outstanding achievement in the postwar years when he secured a welfare fund financed entirely by management 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.

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, 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 as ever 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.

He retired in early 1960, as 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 until his death in 1963, when he was succeeded by Lewis-anointed successor W. A. Boyle, who was just as dictatorial, but without any of Lewis’ leadership skills or vision.

On September 14, 1964, four years after his retirement from the UMWA, Lewis was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson, his citation reading: “[An] eloquent spokesman of labor, [Lewis] has given voice to the aspirations of the industrial workers of the country and led the cause of free trade unions within a healthy system of free enterprise.”

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. He is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois.  Credit Wikipedia

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