Lewis, John L.

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John Llewellyn Lewis (February 12, 1880–June 11, 1969), the son of Welsh immigrants, was raised in poverty in the coalfields of Lucas County, Iowa. In the 1890s the family relocated for several years to Des Moines, but upon the family's return to Lucas County, Lewis began work in the mines and in 1901 became secretary of his United Mine Workers (UMW) local. Lewis married the daughter of a local physician, Myrta Bell, and in time the couple raised three children. By 1907 the Lewis family had resettled in the mining town of Panama, Illinois. Three years later Lewis became president of Panama's large Local 1475, which was a springboard for his union career.

Lewis was a stalwart supporter of UMW president John White, who appointed him union statistician in 1917. By the end of that year, White had resigned, and his replacement, Frank Hayes, named Lewis UMW vice president. When Hayes himself resigned in January 1920, Lewis became head of the nation's largest union. Lewis would hold the post of UMW president for the next forty years.

The 1920s and early 1930s were disastrous for the UMW. Facing fierce competition from non-union coalfields, union operators demanded wage reductions. In dealings with operators Lewis pursued a failed policy of "no backward step." Miner militancy could not overcome market forces that generated low wages and unemployment. As membership plummeted, Lewis faced challenges to his leadership. In 1926 the attack came to a head when John Brophy ran against Lewis for the union presidency. Lewis showed no hesitation in centralizing his authority, red baiting his opponents, and stuffing ballot boxes to defeat Brophy.

Although a Republican, Lewis exploited Franklin Roosevelt's 1932 electoral victory. Lewis played a critical role in securing the labor provision of the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933), and he used the law's section 7a to organize miners in the southern coalfields. Throughout the Depression years, Lewis demonstrated skill in bargaining with both employers and the state, and he used the NRA's code hearings to extend membership, reduce regional differentials, and increase wage rates. UMW success under the New Deal fueled Lewis's ambition to expand unionism dramatically in mass-production industries. He urged the craft unionists who dominated the American Federation of Labor (AFL) executive council to abandon their narrow interests and launch vigorous campaigns in automobiles, steel, rubber, electrical appliances, and other industries. When craft unionists refused to sanction the industrial union campaign at the 1935 AFL convention, Lewis foreshadowed the future of American labor by punching the Carpenters' president Bill Hutcheson in the face.

In November 1935 Lewis and others formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), an industrial union pressure group within the AFL. With Lewis in the limelight, the CIO erected permanent unions in the major mass-production industries and established Labor's Non-Partisan League to re-elect Roosevelt in 1936. In early 1937 Lewis played decisive roles in both the United Automobile Workers' successful sit-down strike against General Motors, and the collective bargaining agreement signed between U.S. Steel and the Steel Workers' Organizing Committee (SWOC). On the heels of these major victories, however, came several setbacks. The spring 1937 "Little Steel" defeat of SWOC, the 1937 to 1938 recession, and the 1938 AFL decision to expel the CIO killed the aura of invincibility that had surrounded Lewis and the CIO.

After the CIO recast itself as the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1938, Lewis became increasingly disillusioned with other CIO leaders and with the Roosevelt administration. One week before the November 1940 presidential elections, Lewis urged union members to support the Republican candidate, Wendell Willkie. After Roosevelt's victory, Lewis resigned as CIO president, although he remained a pivotal figure in the labor movement as president of the UMW.

During World War II and the late 1940s Lewis repeatedly used the strike weapon to advance UMW interests. Although he voiced support for labor's "no strike pledge" during the war, he violated that pledge in 1943 with mining strikes that roused the enmity of politicians and led directly to passage of the Smith-Connally Act. In the late 1940s mining strikes were commonplace, sometimes resulting in union advances but at other times yielding stiff fines and threats of state takeover of the mines. In the 1950s Lewis's strategy shifted to one of collaboration with employers, and the earlier patterns of authoritarian rule and corruption became increasingly prominent. When Lewis retired in 1960, the UMW was in decline, reflecting the increasingly poor health of the coal industry and the corruption that had seeped into the administrative apparatus. Lewis died in 1969 in Washington D.C.



Alinsky, Saul D. John L. Lewis: An Unauthorized Biography. 1949.

Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Warren Van Tine. John L. Lewis: A Biography. 1977.

Laslett, John H. M., ed. The United Mine Workers of America: A Model of Industrial Solidarity? 1996.

Zieger, Robert H. John L. Lewis: Labor Leader. 1988.

Craig Phelan