February 15, 2016
By Bill Hohlfeld
Lucas, Iowa John L. Lewis was was born in Lucas, Iowa, on Feb.12, 1880. He was the son of Welsh immigrant, Tom Lewis and his wife Ann Watkins. John followed in his father’s footsteps and entered the coal mines as a young man of 16. After 5 long years of life working “in the hole” he set out looking for adventure and traveled the country by freight train. These were the years that provided the educational experience that caused Lewis to realize the plight of the American worker.
John returned home in 1905, and within 2 years was married to Myrta Edith Bell, who, he maintained, “was the single most important influence on my life.” The couple moved to Panama Illinois, and Lewis’s life in union politics began with his election to the office of President, Local 1475 of the United Mine Workers. It was while he held that position, and was lobbying the Illinois State Legislature for greater mine safety and workers’ compensation that he had the opportunity to cross paths with Samuel Gompers, President of the AFL. Impressed with the intelligent and energetic Lewis, Gompers hired him as a national organizer, a position he
faithfully executed for 6 years.
Early in 1917 Lewis returned to the United Mine Workers where he worked as a statistician and negotiator. By promoting labor management harmony during World War I he managed to insure that production levels remained high enough to support the war effort and simultaneously gained wage increases for many miners working in coal fields. This led to his recognition and rise to the head of his organization. By 1920 (at age 40) John L. Lewis was president of the UMWA, which, at the time, was one of the nation’s largest and most powerful unions.
The UMWA did, however, have enemies to fight on several fronts. The post war business community in the United States encouraged a red scare mentality and produced the so called “American Plan,” which was basically “right to work” ideology. Non -union mining operations began to proliferate. And, with the boom- bust cycle of the twenties culminating in the great depression, Lewis watched his union dwindle from a robust membership of 500,00 in 1922 to a depleted 75,000 in 1933.
Lewis, never being one to shrink from a challenge, saw an opportunity when the Republicans lost control of Congress and Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932. It was in Washington that Lewis now sought Democratic support for his ideas. His efforts were quickly rewarded. In 1933 Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act to regulate production, ensure stable employment and guarantee workers the right to organize and bargain collectively over the terms and conditions of their employment.
In a bold move, Lewis used the resources at hand by nearly draining his already faltering treasury by financing an all-out organizing drive. "The President wants you to join the union!" became his battle cry, and in less than three months after the National Recovery Administration was established, 92 percent of all the country's coal miners were organized.
Though Lewis found himself on the executive board of the AFL by 1934, his relationship with the organization, whose founder had mentored him, quickly soured. In fact, out of pure frustration with what he perceived to be either the unwillingness or inability of AFL leadership to organize industrial workers, Lewis openly attacked them.
At the 1935 convention, he demanded they make good on their promises to organize and charter industrial unions. When all his proposals were defeated, Lewis provoked Carpenters President William Hutcheson on the floor. A name calling session escalated and finally Lewis leaped across a row of chairs and knocked Hutcheson to the ground with a right to the nose. Part anger and part theater, that punch convinced millions of workers across the country that John L. Lewis was the kind of labor leader they needed – one who would fight for them.
Lewis, now persona non grata in the halls of the AFL, committed UMWA funds to support not only miners, but also organizing drives in the rubber, auto and steel industries. Lewis assigned his own staff to assist each drive, remained in constant communication with them all and personally negotiated the agreements with General Motors and U.S. Steel. Without his help, it is doubtful if these drives would have been the success they were. Industrial unionism in America had become not just a reality, but a force to be reckoned with.
By 1938, the CIO held its founding convention. Lewis was, of course, was elected its first president. An accomplished orator and a tireless proponent of corporations sharing their wealth more evenly, he quickly became revered by millions of workers and was often referred to as “the conscience of American industry.” There was even talk of a U.S. presidential run.
Unfortunately, in 1940, because of disagreements with Roosevelt's war policies, a rift developed between the two men and Lewis endorsed the Republican candidate for president. American workers, feeling duty bound to remain loyal to Roosevelt, refused to follow his lead. As a result, Lewis resigned as president of the CIO. Two years later he severed all ties with the industrial union movement he had helped create and took the UMWA out of the CIO.
While he never again received quite the same level of national attention he once enjoyed, Lewis remained a strong and effective leader of the UMWA for many years. He never ceased to fight for increased safety, job security, wages and benefits for his members. After more than half a century as a distinguished labor leader, Lewis finally retired as president of the UMWA in 1960. Whatever his tactical errors or personal foibles may have cost him over the years, there is no doubt that the vision, drive and commitment of John L. Lewis resulted in the the betterment of the lives of millions of participants in America’s industrial workforce.
John L. Lewis died at his home in Alexandria, Va., in 1969.