United States v. United Mine Workers of America

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United States v. United Mine Workers of America

United States 1947


In 1947 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal district court decision fining the United Mine Workers of America $700,000 and its president, John L. Lewis, $10,000 for contempt of court. The case, which arose out of the union's defiance of a federal district court injunction against a 1946 coal strike, was the culmination of Lewis's contentious relationship with the federal government during the 1940s.


  • 1932: A "Bonus Army" of unemployed veterans marches on Washington, D.C. Many leave after Congress refuses their demands for payment of bonuses for wartime service, but others are forcibly removed by General Douglas MacArthur's troops. Also participating are two other figures destined to gain notoriety in the next world war: majors Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton.
  • 1937: In the middle of an around-the-world flight, Amelia Earhart and her plane disappear somewhere in the Pacific.
  • 1942: Establishment of the women's military services in the United States.
  • 1947: Great Britain's Labour government nationalizes coalmines.
  • 1948: Israel becomes a nation.
  • 1949: Establishment of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
  • 1950: North Korean troops pour into South Korea, starting the Korean War. Initially, the communists make impressive gains, but in September the U.S. Marines land at Inchon and liberate Seoul. China responds by sending in its troops.
  • 1951: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are convicted and sentenced to death for passing U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviets.
  • 1954: The French military outpost at Dien Bien Phu falls to the communist Vietminh. France withdraws after decades of trying to suppress revolt; meanwhile, the United States pledges its support for the noncommunist government in the South.
  • 1956: Elvis Presley appears on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town, where he performs "Hound Dog" and "Love Me Tender" before a mostly female audience. Nationwide, 54 million people watch the performance, setting a new record.
  • 1961: President Eisenhower steps down, warning of a "military-industrial complex" in his farewell speech, and 43year-old John F. Kennedy becomes the youngest elected president in U.S. history. Three months later, he launches an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.

Event and Its Context


United States v. United Mine Workers of America is the name of a specific legal case, but it equally denotes the combative relationship between the autocratic president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), John L. Lewis, and the federal government.

Lewis, who first descended into the coal mines at age 16, rose to acting president of the UMWA in 1919. The following year he was elected to the presidency, a post he held until 1960. In 1933 he launched an aggressive membership drive for the UMWA, which had been losing members throughout the 1920s, and rebuilt it into a powerful union. Additionally, he served as president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) from 1936 to 1940, and from that position was able to force union recognition and collective bargaining on two of the nation's industrial giants, U.S. Steel and General Motors. By the late 1930s Lewis was regarded as one of the nation's most creative and influential labor leaders—although to his critics he was "Cunning John," "Lewis the Dictator," "Old Ironjaw," and "The Eyebrow," the last in reference to his trademark bushy eyebrows.

At heart Lewis was a Republican, and in the early 1930s he actually served as chair of the Republican Party's National Labor Committee. In 1932, though, he joined the Democratic Party, believing that the party and its standard bearer, Franklin D. Roosevelt, were allies of organized labor; Lewis actively supported Roosevelt's New Deal legislation. By the 1940 presidential campaign, however, Lewis believed that the president was taking labor for granted, and in a public breakup he threw his support to Republican Wendell Willkie. After the CIO rank and file rejected his advice and returned Roosevelt to the presidency, Lewis, in disgust, resigned the presidency of the CIO and thereafter concentrated his efforts on building his power base within the UMWA.

"Damn Your Coal-Black Soul!"

During World War II Lewis lost whatever support he had enjoyed from the American public and began to lay the groundwork for his contempt charge in 1946. Coal was a resource vital to the war effort, yet on the eve of America's entry into the war, Lewis called the mineworkers out on strike—to embarrass the president, many thought. Then, concerned about the loss of real wages in the coal industry brought about by the demands of the war, he led workers out on a second wartime strike in 1943, which prompted Roosevelt to seize the coal industry. Fevered negotiations involving the UMWA, the mine operators, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, and the National War Labor Board finally led to a settlement, but not before 500,000 workers had walked off their jobs.

The American public was incensed against the union and its "holdup" tactics. In Congress, conservatives and liberals alike denounced Lewis for subverting the national interest during war. News of the coal strike competed with stories from the war on the front pages of the nation's newspapers. Rumors circulated that Lewis was a Nazi collaborator. Even CIO leaders denounced Lewis as a self-serving demagogue out for revenge against the president. An editorial in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes exclaimed, "Speaking for the American soldier, John L. Lewis, damn your coal-black soul!" This line virtually became a national chant. Lewis made gains for miners during the war, but the price he paid was increasing isolation from other labor leaders and former political allies.

Post-World War II Turmoil

The public mood took a sharp antilabor turn in the months and years following the war. As the nation demobilized, Americans expected that the privations of the war years would come to an end. Instead the nation faced shortages and inflation in part because labor, which in general had remained quiet during the war, sought to recoup some of its sacrifices. Particularly disturbing was the wave of strikes in the 12 months following the end of the war: 200,000 General Motors employees, 300,000 meat packers, 180,000 electrical workers, 750,000 steel workers—in sum, 4,630 work stoppages involving five million workers. Americans' simmering antilabor sentiment accorded well with the efforts of Harry Truman's administration to curb the power of organized labor.

In this context the coal strike of 1946 was the last straw. The sequence of events began on 2 March when Lewis announced that he wanted to reopen negotiations with the coal operators and that a labor dispute existed. In talks through March, Lewis focused more on health and safety issues than on economic demands and pressed for a health and welfare fund, although some observers interpreted his recital of mining accidents and lack of sanitation in the mining camps as a cynical ploy designed to win back sympathy from the public. On 1 April the union's contract expired and the miners walked out, but negotiations continued for 10 more days until a frustrated Lewis left the bargaining table.

Throughout the spring the nation burned its coal reserves down to a dangerous level, the steel industry cut production by half, and auto plants in Detroit closed. Congress introduced various punitive bills that would have restricted the right to strike. On 10 May, Lewis announced a two-week truce, but when negotiations collapsed in mid-May, Truman ordered Secretary of the Interior Julius A. Krug to seize the mines. On 29 May, Lewis and Krug signed an agreement that provided workers with retirement and medical funds as well as a wage increase and a promise to enact a federal mine safety code. Confidence ran high that the dispute was settled.

That confidence was premature. Throughout the summer and early fall, the mines were still in the hands of the government, and efforts to get producers on board with the agreement were meeting with resistance, particularly in the South. Then on 21 October, Lewis sent shock waves through the nation when, invoking a provision that he claimed was part of the 29 May agreement, he informed Secretary Krug that he wanted to reopen negotiations. Resentfully, the Truman administration agreed, and on 11 November, Lewis presented demands for a reduction in hours, a hefty wage boost, and an increase in coal companies' contributions to the welfare and retirement fund. The administration wanted to avert a strike but did not want to agree to inflationary wage increases, so on 17 November, with the Lewis-Krug agreement about to expire on 20 November, Truman announced that he would "fight John L. Lewis on all fronts." The drama grew as he ordered the Solid Fuel Administration to freeze all coal in transit and the Office of Defense Transportation to order the railroads to cut their use of coal. On 18 November, Judge T. Alan Goldsborough of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted Attorney General Tom Clark's request for an injunction against the strike.


Strictly speaking, Lewis did not call for a strike. He simply remained silent as the 20 November deadline came and went. Hearing of the injunction, 33,000 workers walked off their jobs prematurely. Then at midnight on 20 November, the entire bituminous coal industry shut down. Again, an atmosphere of crisis pervaded the nation. The New York Times proclaimed that 25 million workers could be idled as a result of the strike. To save electricity, plans were even made to shut off the lights illuminating the Capitol Dome in Washington, D.C., prompting the Committee on American History to ask, "Are we going to darken it for John L. Lewis?"

Lewis was in a corner, and he knew it. He hired an FBI agent-turned-private eye to dig up dirt on Judge Goldsborough. As he worked to find some way out of the crisis, he was summoned to district court on 25 November to answer contempt charges. On 3 December, Judge Goldsborough rejected the defendants' claim that the injunction violated the Clayton and Norris-La Guardia Acts and held that the government, despite the acts, had the power to obtain and enforce a labor injunction when its purpose was to avoid potential public calamity.

Then, Judge Goldsborough turned to the defendants and administered a tongue-lashing. He referred to Lewis's actions as "an evil, demonic, monstrous thing that means hunger and cold and unemployment and destitution and disorganization of the social fabric." Apocalyptically, he went on, "Unless those who are directing the affairs of this union are corrected, they will destroy the union, because if the worst should come to the worst . . . and it is a question of the destruction of this union or the preservation of this Republic, the Republic is going to be preserved." Goldsborough noted that in his view Lewis should be imprisoned, but the government, not wanting to turn Lewis into a martyr, had asked instead for a fine. Accordingly, the court fined the union $3.5 million and Lewis $10,000.

Lewis appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but he knew he was defeated. On 7 December he called off the strike. The Supreme Court heard the case on 14 January 1947, and in its decision on 6 March upheld the fine against Lewis, though it reduced the fine against the union to $700,000.


The crisis brought into public focus the intensely personal feud between Lewis and Truman, one that often led to public sniping. After Truman, in response to a proposal that he appoint Lewis ambassador to Moscow, quipped that he would not make Lewis the dogcatcher of the country, the New York Times published Lewis's rejoinder: "The President could ill afford to have more brains in the Dog Department than in the Department of State, and from this standpoint, his remarks to you are eminently justified."

On one level, the crisis represented a humiliation for Lewis and a corresponding boost to Truman, who had long been trying to emerge from Roosevelt's shadow. On another level, though, the case had important consequences for the balance of power between the federal government and private enterprise. The government won the battle and reaffirmed its power to seize an industry and force a union to negotiate a contract. The UMWA may have won the war, for in 1947 events came full circle when a contract finally was negotiated that gave miners a $3 per day increase in wages and benefits, lowered the workday from nine to eight hours, and established a welfare and retirement fund similar to that worked out in the Lewis-Krug agreement.

Key Players

Clark, Tom C. (1899-1977): Clark, born in Dallas, Texas, became assistant U.S. attorney general in 1943 and attorney general under Truman in 1945. In 1949 the president appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court (1949-1967).

Goldsborough, Thomas Alan (1877-1951): Born in Greensboro, South Carolina, Goldsborough worked as a lawyer until he was elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1921. He served until 1939, when he was appointed an associate justice of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, where he served until his death.

Krug, Julius Albert (1907-1970): Krug was born in Madison, Wisconsin. He served as President Truman's secretary of the interior from March 1946 to December 1949.

Lewis, John L. (1880-1969): Born in the coal mining town of Cleveland, Iowa, Lewis began working in the coal mines at age sixteen. He became president of the United Mine Workers of America in 1920 and held the position until his retirement in 1960.

Truman, Harry S (1884-1972): Born in Lamar, Missouri, Truman, after running a clothing store in Kansas City, began his political career in a succession of county offices, including that of presiding judge on the county court. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1935, where he served until he became Franklin Roosevelt's new vice president in 1944. On Roosevelt's death in 1945, Truman became the nation's 33rd president.

See also: Congress of Industrial Organizations; Strike Wave: United States; United Mine Workers of America.



Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Warren Van Tine. John L. Lewis: ABiography. New York: New York Times Books Co., 1977.

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


United States v. United Mine Workers of America. 70 F. Supp. 42; 67 S.Ct. 677.

—Michael J. O'Neal

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United States v. United Mine Workers of America