John Llewellyn Lewis

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John L. Lewis (18801969) began his working life as a coal miner, working like his father did for low wages in dangerous situations in an unregulated mining industry. He realized early that organizing his fellow mine workers into a common union of shared self-interest was the only way to fight the business practices that had created the circumstances he and other mine workers faced. Eventually, he became the president of the United Mine Workers (UMW), the national union of miners, and later the first president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations(CIO), the first unionized affiliation of industrial workers in the United States.

John Llewellyn Lewis was born in 1880, one of six children born to Thomas and Ann Lewis, in Lucas, Iowa. His father was a coal miner, a Welsh immigrant to the United States. The family moved often, following the availability of work from one coal-mining community to another. Lewis's childhood was filled with his family's continual struggle for financial security. Only because his father had obtained a steady job as a policeman in Des Moines, Iowa for a few years, was Lewis able to attend high school for three and a half years.

Lewis became involved with the organization of the miner's union in Lucas, Iowa, when he was 17. He continued to work in the mines, but he did not settle into serious union organizing efforts until 1908, at age 28. He moved with his wife to Panama, Illinois, and there became involved in union activities. With the help of his five brothers, Lewis was promoted to spokesman for the UMW.

A year later the UMW, seeking passage of mine safety laws, appointed Lewis as their state lobbyist in Illinois,. In 1910 Lewis was made president of his union local in Panama, Illinois, one of the 10 largest union locals in the state. By the next year he had became a full-time organizer for the national organization of craft and skilled-labor unions known as the American Federation of Labor (AFL). He remained with the AFL for six years. His reputation grew as a fierce and progressive voice speaking powerfully on behalf of those who were then a part of U.S. organized labor.

By 1920 Lewis was elected president of the UMW, and he guided the union of dwindling U.S. mine workers through a long period of decline in the 1920s. He held the union together during a time when U.S. industry moved to prevent further labor organizing. It was an era of cheap labor for industry, which was able to use newly immigrated workers from the southern United States and Europe. The rapid introduction of machinery to business during the 1920s also contributed to the decline of organized labor. The increasing use of machines threatened jobs, and many workers gave up their union activities in favor of preserving their employment. By the end of the 1920s Lewis had obtained absolute control over what was left of the organized mine workers in the United States.

When the United States experienced the Great Depression (19291939) after the stock market crash of 1929, Lewis began to fight to keep control of his union. He had to fend off new and aggressive communist labor organizers, as well as union opportunists representing a variety of reactionary labor positions. But, he held the threadbare UMW together.

After Franklin Roosevelt (19331945) was elected president of the United States in 1932, Lewis began to regain a large new membership in the UMW, based on Roosevelt's efforts to re-ignite the U.S. economy by mobilizing the industrial forces of the United States back into action with government aid. As part of Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), administered by the National Recovery Administration (NRA), a provision of the NIRA, known as "section 7(a)," guaranteed labor's right to organize unions during this time in an overall effort to not only establish codes of fair competition for business, but also to provide safeguards for labor. Section 7(a) gave the right to all employees to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, without coercion. Labor unions immediately grew in number and size, including the UMW.

By 1933 most UMW miners were working a fiveday week, eight hours a day, for the first time in their lives. At that time Lewis was moving in the direction of organizing all U.S. labor by industry, and not by their occupations or skills. By 1935 after the AFL had refused to include industrial laborers into their union, Lewis began to aggressively organize the neglected laborers in the great mass-production industries like steel, automobiles, rubber, oil, lumber, aluminum, and textiles. In conjunction with other labor leaders, Lewis began to put together the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1936. CIO managed victories in the steel and auto industries between 1936 and 1937 led to a massive membership in the CIO. After that a gradual and very difficult affiliation began, eventually joining the AFL with the CIO in an international union known as the AFL-CIO in 1954.

John L. Lewis fought throughout his adult life for the dignity of U.S. labor. On balance, Lewis succeeded in his efforts. By using "people power" to fight the raw power of money and business influence, Lewis' creation of an international CIO lead to one of the first example of a consolidation of unions built on the efforts of industrial workers. His achievements in acquiring labor benefits for his union's members were eventually integrated into national policy, as when the Roosevelt administration created legislation to provide social security for the elderly and the disabled. Though this legislation was not due to Lewis' efforts alone, he was one of the first voices at the turn of the twentieth century to advocate for these measures and to see them become a part of life in the United States. John Lewis died in 1969.

See also: American Federation of Labor, Coal Industry, Congress of Industrial Organizations, Labor Movement, Labor Unionism, National Industrial Recovery Act, National Recovery Administration, United Mine Workers


Alinsky, Saul D. John L. Lewis, An Unauthorized Biography. New York: Vintage Book, 1970.

Bernstein, Irving. The Lean Years. New York: Houghton Press, 1965.

Brody, Davis. Workers in Industrial America. New York: Oxford Press, 1980.

Dubofsky, Melvyn and Warren Van Tine. John L. Lewis, A Biography. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Fraser, Steven. Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor. New York: Free Press, 1991.

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John Llewellyn Lewis

John Llewellyn Lewis (1880-1969) was one of the most powerful and controversial American labor leader of the 20th century. In founding the Congress of Industrial Organizations, he brought trade union organization to mass-production workers.

The American labor movement as it functions today owes much to John L. Lewis, who, along with his loyal disciples, seized the opportunity provided by President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal program to make trade unionism a force in national affairs.

John L. Lewis was born in Lucas, Iowa, on Feb. 2, 1880, to Welsh immigrant parents. He grew up in a coal-mining and trade unionist family. After his father was black-listed for participating in a strike in 1882, the family moved about in constant search for work.

Life as a Miner

At the age of 15 John began work as a coal miner. Two years later he returned to Lucas, where he met his future wife, Myrta Bell. She influenced him to read avidly and widely, a habit that later produced the flowery phrases, Shakespearean quotations, and mixed metaphors of his famous public speeches.

A burly, adventurous young man, Lewis traveled to the West in 1901, where he worked as a miner in Montana, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona. He was in Wyoming in 1905 when a coal mine explosion killed 236 miners; this experience has been considered crucial in inspiring Lewis's devotion to miners' unionism and his passion for mine-safety legislation.

Early Career as a Union Official

In 1907 Lewis married Myrta Bell. In 1909 they moved to the heart of the southern Illinois coalfield, one of the key districts in the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Aided by his five brothers who joined him there, Lewis gained control of the UMWA local. Following an Illinois mine disaster, the astute lobbying by which he achieved improved mine safety and workmen's-compensation legislation brought him recognition. As a result, Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), offered Lewis appointment as an AFL field representative and legislative agent.

Traveling on an AFL expense account, Lewis visited the important mining districts and ingratiated himself with local officials through generous use of AFL funds. Thus he was able to construct his own political machine within the UMWA. In 1916 he became the UMWA's chief statistician. A year later he was elected vice president; this, in effect, allowed him to run the union. In 1920, when Lewis became president of the UMWA, the union claimed 500,000 members.

Union President

Lewis's desire for power and the American environment of the 1920s would combine finally to undermine the UMWA's strength. Attempting to establish dictatorial control over the union, he alienated much of the membership as well as influential union leaders. This led to division of the union in Illinois and establishment of a dual miners' union. Lewis also negotiated agreements with employers that sacrificed jobs for the sake of higher wages. A Republican by belief and tradition, Lewis maintained a rather narrow social vision. When the Depression struck the country in 1929, his power had lessened greatly.


The factors that hindered Lewis during the 1920s operated to his advantage in the 1930s. His lust for power allowed him to observe conditions that other labor leaders missed. Aware that the power of business had suffered from the Depression and the New Deal's more benign attitude toward unions, Lewis moved in 1933 and 1934 to rebuild the UMWA into a large and flourishing organization. He urged the AFL to organize and enroll mass-production workers into industrial unions. When the craft unionists who controlled the AFL refused to accept industrial unionism, Lewis challenged them by creating the Committee for Industrial Organizations (CIO) within the AFL in 1935. At the same time he resigned his AFL vice presidency.

Under Lewis's wise leadership the CIO proceeded to mount militant and well-financed organizing efforts in the automobile, steel, rubber, and other industries. In 1937, during protracted industrial conflicts, the CIO succeeded in bringing union organization and collective bargaining to the mass-production industries. Lewis remained a barrier against attempts to reunite the labor movement, however. In 1938 he transformed the CIO into a permanent competitor with the AFL.

Relations with Roosevelt

Successful in confrontations with the General Motors and United States Steel companies, Lewis took on President Roosevelt. Lewis had left the Republican party and turned New Dealer in 1936, providing the Democrats with a half million dollars in campaign funds. But when Roosevelt refused to heed his every demand, Lewis turned against him. In 1940 he opposed Roosevelt's reelection (allegedly because he had been denied second place on the ticket) and endorsed Wendell Willkie for the presidency. In a national radio speech, he called on workers to vote Republican and promised to resign as president of the CIO if Roosevelt won. When Roosevelt did win, Lewis resigned his presidency in 1941, though not without much drama.

Final Years

Lewis remained a thorn in the side of other labor leaders, employers, and public officials. Using what power he retained as UMWA president, he frequently called strikes in times of national emergency. This resulted in antilabor legislation and rising criticism of Lewis's behavior, though the miners' demands were usually fulfilled.

During his last years as president of the UMWA, Lewis returned to his 1920s strategies. Again, as Lewis traded jobs for higher wages and welfare benefits, his union shrank in membership and influence. He finally resigned his presidency in 1960. He died on June 11, 1969, in Washington.

Further Reading

There is no scholarly biography of Lewis, but three journalistic accounts of his life are available. The best of these, although laudatory and sometimes unreliable, is Saul Alinsky, John L. Lewis (1949). More critical are C. L. Sulzberger, Sit Down with John L. Lewis (1938), and James A. Wechsler, Labor Baron: A Portrait of John L. Lewis (1944). An interesting, revealing portrait is in the autobiography of another UMWA leader, John Brophy, A Miner's Life, edited by John O. P. Hall (1964). The works that best place Lewis in context of the 1920s and 1930s and critically assess his contributions are Irving Bernstein, The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker, 1920-1933 (1960) and Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941 (1970). □

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Lewis, John Llewellyn (1880–1969) US labour leader. Lewis served as president (1920–60) of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW). After splitting with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) over the unionization of mass-production industries, he formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and was its president (1935–40).

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