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John L. Lewis

John L. Lewis

John Llewellyn Lewis (February 12, 1880 - June 11, 1969) was a labor leader, and served as president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) from 1920 to 1960.

Born to Welsh immigrants in Lucas, Iowa, Lewis began working as a miner in Illinois at the age of 15. He joined the United Mine Workers and was eventually elected to the position of branch secretary.

In 1911 Lewis began organizing for the American Federation of Labor (AFL) full time. By 1917 he had been elected president of the UMWA. Lewis quickly asserted himself as a dominant figure in what was then the largest and most influential union in the country.

Lewis was a despotic leader of the Mine Workers: he expelled his political rivals within the UMWA, such as John Brophy and Adolph Germer, and bullied those whom he did not drive out. He 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.

A lifelong Republican, Lewis threw his support behind FDR at the outset of the New Deal. Lewis traded on the tremendous appeal that Roosevelt had with workers in those days, sending organizers into the coal fields to tell workers that "The President wants you to join the Union." The President in that case was Lewis, President of the UMWA, but if workers thought that it was Roosevelt, well no real harm was done. The UMWA, which had shrunk catastrophically during the first years of the Great Depression, gained hundreds of thousands of members in those organizing drives.

Lewis also realized that any gains that he won for miners could be lost if he did not organize the "captive mines," those held by the steel producers such as U.S. Steel. That required in turn organizing the steel industry, which had defeated union organizing drives in 1892 and 1919 and which had resisted all organizing efforts since then fiercely, blacklisting union supporters and intimidating workers through the Coal and Iron Police and other law enforcement authorities under its control. Lewis also feared that if organized labor did not represent these workers, then communists and other radicals on the left would.

The task of organizing steelworkers, on the other hand, put Lewis at odds with the AFL, which was controlled by craft unionists who looked down on both industrial workers and industrial unions, which represented all workers in a particular industry, rather than just those in a particular skilled trade or craft.

This dispute came to a head at the AFL’s convention in Atlantic City in 1935, when William Hutcheson, the President of the Carpenters, made a slighting comment about a rubber worker delivering an organizing report. Lewis responded that Hutcheson’s comment was “small potatoes,” to which Hutcheson replied “I eat small potatoes, that is why I am so big.” After some more words Lewis punched Hutcheson, knocking him to the ground, then relit his cigar and returned to the rostrum. The incident -- which was also “small potatoes,” but very memorable -- helped cement Lewis’ image in the public eye as someone willing to fight for workers’ right to organize.

Shortly after the Convention, Lewis called together leaders of seven other unions within the AFL to form a group known as the Committee for Industrial Organizing to push the AFL to change its policy opposing industrial organizing. William Green, a former underling to Lewis at the UMWA and now President of the AFL, treated this group as an enemy within the AFL that must be isolated and, if necessary, removed. Lewis and Green became even more antagonistic over the next few years until the CIO, now calling itself the Congress of Industrial Organizations, formally established itself as a rival union federation in 1938. Lewis was elected the first president of the fledgling organization on November 18 that year.

Lewis, in fact, was the CIO: the UMWA provided the great bulk of the financial resources that the CIO poured into organizing drives by the United Automobile Workers, the United Steel Workers of America, the Textile Workers Union and other newly formed or struggling unions. Lewis hired back many of the people he had exiled from the UMWA in the 1920s to lead the CIO and placed his protégé Philip Murray at the head of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. Lewis played the leading role in the negotiations that led to the successful conclusion of the Flint sit-down strike conducted by the UAW in 1936-1937 and in the Chrysler sit-down strike that followed. Millions of workers came to regard Lewis as a champion of laboring men and women, and were inspired by his oratorical skills and willingness to make bold demands on corporations.

Lewis was also quixotic: he broke with his allies in the CIO to support Wendell Willkie, rather than Roosevelt, in 1940, then resigned as President of the CIO. He took the UMWA out of the CIO in 1942, then rejoined the AFL in 1944. In 1943, when the rest of labor was observing a general policy against strikes during the war, Lewis led the UMWA out on a twelve-day strike for higher wages. He defied the government again in 1948 by striking in violation of a court order and was found guilty of contempt of court.

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: until the passage of the Landrum-Griffin Act in 1959, 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' anointed successor Tony Boyle, was just as dictatorial, but without any of Lewis' leadership skills or vision.

Lewis retired as president of the UMWA in 1960 and died at his home in Alexandria, Virginia.

Lewis emerging from the Orient No. 2 mine
in West Frankfort, Illinois after viewing the
devastation of a mine explosion that
killed 119 miners in December 1951.

John L. Lewis quotes

"I have pleaded (labor's) case, not in the quavering tones of a feeble mendicant asking alms, but in the thundering voice of the captain of a mighty host, demanding the rights to which free men are entitled."

(Asked about the number of communists and other radicals he had hired as organizers for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee) "Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?"