John L. Lewis

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: As president of the United Mine Workers union and founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, Lewis dominated the progress of organized labor in the United States from the 1920’s through the 1960’s.

Early Life

John Llewellyn Lewis was born in Lucas, Iowa, on February 12, 1880. Both his parents, Thomas and Louisa (née Watkins) Lewis, had been born in Wales and had migrated to the United States in the 1870’s; John was the eldest of six sons and two daughters. Thomas worked as a coal miner whenever he could find work, but, having been placed on an employer blacklist for leading a miners’ strike in 1882, he often had to fill in with other jobs, such as working as a night watchman.

Young John only went as far as the eighth grade before leaving school to supplement his father’s meager and irregular income. He sold newspapers in Des Moines, Iowa, for a few years until the abolition of the blacklist in 1897 allowed his father to return to Lucas, where John, then age seventeen, joined him in the coal mines. John worked there until 1901 and then set off on a working tour of Western mining communities, toiling in copper, silver, gold, and coal mines in Montana, Utah, Arizona, and Colorado. Soon after returning to Lucas in 1906, he married Myrta Edith Bell, the daughter of a local doctor. They would have three children: Margaret Mary (who died in childhood), Florence Kathryn, and John Llewellyn II.

Shortly before Lewis’ marriage, the Lucas miners elected him as a delegate to the national convention of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW), the largest union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). A few years later, in 1909, he moved his family to Panama, Illinois, and continued his union activity. He was selected president of the Panama miners’ local union and soon thereafter was appointed state legislative agent for District 12 of the UMW. It was in this capacity that he convinced the Illinois legislature to pass a comprehensive package of mine safety and workmen’s compensation laws by exploiting the Cherry, Illinois, mine disaster of 1911 that killed 160 men.

Samuel Gompers (founder and president of the AFL), impressed by Lewis’ obvious leadership talents, took the young labor activist under his wing and made him a national legislative representative for the AFL in late 1911. This job took Lewis to Washington, D.C., where he was able to learn valuable lessons regarding the politics and management of labor organization. He also continued his rise through the ranks of the UMW. In 1916, he served as temporary chairman of the UMW’s national convention and, in 1917, he was elected vice president of the union.

Lewis had his first taste of national-level labor confrontation when, in 1919, he became acting president of the union for Frank J. Hayes, who had become too debilitated by alcoholism to carry out his duties. Several months after assuming this position, Lewis called for a strike when mine operators rejected the union’s demand for a sixty percent wage hike, a six-hour workday, and a five-day workweek. A federal court issued an injunction against the strike, but, in November, 1919, Lewis defied the injunction, ordering 425,000 men out of the mines. The strike lasted two months and, after a face-to-face meeting with President Woodrow Wilson, Lewis was forced to call the miners back to work. They did gain a wage increase of approximately thirty percent, but their other demands went unsatisfied. The rough, bulky, bushy-eyebrowed Lewis did gain a reputation for toughness during the strike, however, and he parlayed this into an official UMW presidency in 1920. He would hold this position until he retired in 1960.

Life’s Work

Lewis assumed the presidency of the UMW at a time when the coal industry had begun to experience serious difficulties. Coal output had skyrocketed between 1916 and 1919 to meet wartime needs but, once World War I was over, demand dropped back to more normal levels, causing a glut of coal on the market. In addition, mine owners with union workers faced rising competition from nonunion mines in the South and from “captive” mines owned by steel companies and railroads. In an effort to meet these threats, unionized producers began to lower both prices and miners’ wages. Lewis refused to agree to this wage-reduction strategy and, in 1922, he called a strike. Miners did win a wage increase to $7.50 a day as a result of this strike, but many only worked irregularly as the crisis persisted.

In the years that followed, the situation in the coal industry continued to deteriorate. More than three thousand mines shut down during the 1920’s and UMW membership dropped from a high of 500,000 in 1922 to 150,000 by 1930. Lewis responded by urging coal operators to increase their productivity and thereby halt the precipitous decline in regular miner employment. He opposed pay cuts that were made to keep unprofitable operations in business and instead favored the closing of these marginal mines and the introduction of increased mechanization in remaining ones in order to make them more efficient and competitive—and thus a stable source of employment for his members. Factions within the UMW opposed Lewis’ proposals and organized a series of wildcat strikes to protest his emphasis on mechanization (which they believed would cost even more jobs). This struggle within the UMW, which also contributed to the decline in membership, culminated at the national convention of 1930, where his opponents made a concerted effort to unseat him. Lewis still had enough support within the UMW, however, to resist these attempts and to purge the leaders of this opposition from the union.

As the Depression tightened its grip on the United States after 1930, it also aggravated the problems within the coal industry. Coal sales continued to slump, and thousands of miners lost their jobs. The UMW, in an increasingly weakened position, could do little to resist employer attempts to reduce the wages of miners who managed to keep their jobs. It was at this point that Lewis turned to the national government for help. Although he had been a Republican throughout the 1920’s and had even supported Herbert Hoover in 1932, Lewis recognized that the Democrat who defeated his man in that election, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was sympathetic to labor’s plight and might come to its aid. Accordingly, Lewis swung to Roosevelt and the Democratic Party and participated actively in the New Deal. He became a labor adviser to the president,...

(The entire section is 2698 words.)