During the coal miners’ strike in the winter of 1978, a reporter interviewed a retired miner, who said in effect, “It would not have happened while John L. Lewis was president. He would never have allowed the men to reject a contract he negotiated.” In its way, that statement says more about Lewis than more conventional characterizations, which however, may still be necessary for the generation that did not know Lewis. John L. Lewis belongs to the top ranks of any list of leading figures in American labor history; and in his day, he was always in the very top ranks of best-loved and most-hated public figures.
Dubofsky and Van Tine have done thorough research, which took them to the archives of both government and labor bodies, to the manuscript census reports (for Lewis’ family), to private papers, oral history reports (which they find of limited value), and the contemporary press. The nature of these materials is important, because it very largely determines the nature of the biography. Lewis left little in the way of family and personal papers, and even much official union business apparently is unrecorded. Careful biographers of a figure such as Lewis are therefore limited in what they can say about their subject’s private life, about his motives, and even about some of his maneuvers. Gaps must be filled by speculation, but this is kept to a minimum, and when it is indulged in, it is labeled as such. Dubofsky and Van Tine also spend considerable time in the process of demythologizing; text and footnotes are full of corrections of past sources. Saul Alinsky’s “unauthorized biography” of 1949, for example, suffers greatly; but it is apparent that the principal mythmaker was Lewis himself.
His early life, for instance, is very difficult to trace. As his name would suggest, his parents were Welsh, and, like many Welsh immigrants to the United States, they had experience in the coal mines. They came, after journeys not altogether traceable by the authors, to Lucas County, Iowa, where Lewis was born. Rural Iowa in the 1870’s and 1880’s was partially coal country. The Lewises moved around; John attended high school but probably did not graduate (the records are not clear). He worked in the mines, and took a prominent role in local theatricals. He also served briefly as officer of the local union.
His real career, however, began, after a long sojourn in the West and a business failure, with his move to Illinois and his rise in the local and district union there. Dubofsky and Van Tine, admitting that Lewis’ motives were speculative, put his resultant success in perspective. Lewis brought with him his father and brothers, a sizable nucleus for an organization; they were English-speaking and Protestant, which gave them an advantage over newer immigrants. Also, Lewis’ skills of oratory and manipulation were already developed. Within a decade, Lewis had risen in the union hierarchy. Dubofsky and Van Tine point out that his career was not so much in the mines or in an elective union office as in the bureaucracy, as paid organizer for the United Mine Workers and the American Federation of Labor, and aide to Samuel Gompers, then president of the AFL. “Bureaucrat” is their term, and it rightly distinguishes Lewis and others from the rank-and-file; his actual work, however, was not so much that of a deskbound official as of an evangelist or traveling salesman.
By a succession of appointments and resignations in 1917-1918, Lewis became acting president of the UMWA without an election. Once arrived, he consolidated his position to win the next election—and he continued to be reelected for years thereafter. The authors suggest that Lewis’ methods in achieving such success were ruthless.
The history and situation of the United Mine Workers afford some understanding of Lewis’ rise and of the problems of his presidency. Coal mining was notoriously, undeniably, hard and dangerous work. Relations between operators and miners had rarely been serene, and were often violent. Within the union, ethnic and religious divisions, factionalism, bitter feuds, and accusations of misuse of union funds or of “class collaboration” (serving the bosses rather than the workers), were constant. In addition, Lewis, as President, had to deal with the impact of World War I and the postwar adjustment of the economy and of the coal industry. Himself a Republican, at least officially, Lewis had to face the individualistic and frequently antiunion mood of the prosperous 1920’s. His contacts with the administrations, and especially with Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce, won advantage neither for the union nor for himself (he apparently would have liked to be Secretary of Labor).
The low point for the union and for Lewis, the authors feel, was the Great...
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