United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)

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Once the largest union in both the nation and the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) fell on hard times during the 1920s and in the early years of theGreat Depression. Claiming nearly 500,000 members in 1920, the union consisted of barely 100,000 dues-paying members by 1929 and even fewer by 1932, most of whom were concentrated in the last remaining unionized field, southern Illinois, itself wracked by internal union conflict. Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and the West, coal operators broke the union. In southern Appalachian coal fields the UMWA had rarely enjoyed success. All this changed with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and the coming of the New Deal. Almost overnight the coal miners seemed to organize themselves, as one union organizer reported from West Virginia. In every coal field miners seemed to believe that their "president" wanted them to unionize; whether they took that president to be Roosevelt or John L. Lewis, their union leader, remained unclear.

By mid-summer 1933 the nation's coal fields had been largely re-unionized, with even the antilabor bastions in the South crumbling before the UMWA offensive. Coal operators and UMWA officials were among the first group to develop an approved industrial code under the New Deal National Recovery Administration (NRA). Employers saw the UMWA as a means to limit destructive competition in the market for coal by equalizing wages and operating costs, a goal consonant with the aims of the early New Deal. In the case of coal, then, public officials, employers, and union leaders all read from the same text. Once again the UMWA, as it had been before and during World War I, became a power in the labor movement and the land, and its president, John L. Lewis, the most prominent and powerful of labor leaders.

The success of his union, one that he ran almost as a tyrant, and the pro-labor policies of many in the Roosevelt administration, led Lewis to grow even more ambitious. Not satisfied with having won a union shop in all the coal mines, save those owned and operated by the steel industry (the socalled captive mines), Lewis sought to expand the power of the labor movement by organizing workers in the non-union mass-production industries. When his fellow labor barons in the AFL refused to follow Lewis's lead, he joined with several other union leaders in 1935 to form the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). Using the ample financial resources of the UMWA, Lewis hired staff for the new committee, as well as organizers to recruit among workers in the automobile, rubber, steel, and other mass-production industries. For nearly six years after its founding in 1935 through its incarnation as the independent Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1938, the CIO survived largely on donations of cash from the UMWA. The UMWA also provided the bulk of the funds labor generated through Labor's Non-Partisan League, which Lewis established to back Roosevelt's bid for reelection in 1936. Hence, it would be no exaggeration to suggest that the UMWA deserved credit for the unionization of the mass-production industries in the 1930s; without its resources and its president, there would have been no CIO, no CIO alliance with Roosevelt, and likely no union victories over General Motors and U.S. Steel in 1937.

The UMWA did more than benefit other unions and their members during the 1930s. It also had enormous success in improving the material circumstances of its own members. Not only did the union organize nearly all the nation's employed coal miners; by the end of the 1930s it had also eliminated the wage differential between northern and southern mines and between white workers and black workers in the South. Few other institutions did as much to raise the standards of southern workers, black and white. Along with higher and more equal wages came the union shop and seniority principles that combined to generate greater job security for miners. On the eve of World War II—indeed on December 6, 1941—the UMWA won the union shop for miners in the captive coal mines, making the industry the most thoroughly unionized in the nation.

If, at first, the coal miners had unionized themselves, they nevertheless remained deferential and obedient to a leadership that ran the union in autocratic fashion. As president of the union, Lewis brooked neither criticism nor opposition. Critics and opponents he ridiculed or repressed. Not even Roosevelt could escape Lewis's wrath in 1940 when the labor leader endorsed Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate for president, instead of the Democrat who had refused to defer sufficiently to Lewis. Yet, however much UMWA members disagreed with their leader's choice in 1940, they continued to shower Lewis with respect, plaudits, and exceptional loyalty. For a time, at least from 1941 to 1950, such loyalty paid off in higher wages, a generous retirement program, and an excellent union-built, company-financed health and welfare system. Thereafter, however, the UMWA experienced a cycle of stagnation and rapid decline reminiscent of the 1920s and the early Great Depression years.



Bernstein, Irving. Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933–1941. 1969.

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

Fox, Maier B. United We Stand: The United Mine Workers of America. 1990.

Galenson, Walter. The CIO Challenge to the AFL, A History of the American Labor Movement, 1935–1941. 1960.

Hevener, John W. Which Side Are You On? The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931–39. 1978.

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

Taylor, Paul F. Bloody Harlan: The United Mine Workers of America in Harlan County, Kentucky, 1931–1941. 1989.

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

Melvyn Dubofsky

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United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)

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United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)