John L. Lewis (1880 – 1969)
United Mine WorkersActive: 1906 – 1960
“If democracy and corporate participation in industry are to survive in America, labor must have an opportunity to exercise its industrial rights for the protection of itself and our democratic and economic institutions.”
As a young man, Lewis honed his famed powers of oratory in the theater.
John L. Lewis was instrumental in expanding the labor movement beyond the trade crafts, his push to organize industrial workers helped the American labor movement grow rapidly during industrialization. His drive to expand union membership to industrial workers ultimately fractured the American Federation of Labor and led him to found the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1938 with David Dubinski, Sidney Hillman, and other labor leaders. The two organizations remained separate for nearly twenty years until Walter Reuther and George Meany united the organizations into the AFL-CIO.
Lewis grew up in Iowa, the son of a coal miner and labor activist. When he began working in Iowa at age 16, he experienced firsthand the extremely poor working conditions in the coal mines that drove his father’s passion for the labor union. Ten years later in 1906, he began his own career in the labor movement, attending the United Mine Workers of America convention as his local’s representative. With no formal education beyond the seventh grade Lewis, in short order, would become the President of the UMWA in 1920, known for his great intellect and stentorian speaking style in addition to his bushy eyebrows.
Lewis earned renown quickly, after organizing a five month strike to preserve the wage increased gained during World War I. This victory helped Lewis emerge victorious from political battles within the union. In the 1920’s, Lewis had to fight with communists factions for control of the union. Lewis eventually succeeded in retaining control of the UMWA after expelling many leaders with communist ties, an action that earned him the ire of Mother Jones.
Lewis began his tenure as the president to 400,000 members of the UMWA but during the post-war period membership declined and was exacerbated by the Great Depression which had a devastating effect on membership, driving the number down to only 75,000 by the time of Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932. By then, 72 percent of America’s bituminous coal was being mined by non-union labor at starvation wages.
Lewis fought for miners on all fronts, in the business as well as the political arenas. After unsuccessfully advocating for efficiencies and cooperation with the operators in the interest both of business and labor to help to the coal industry prosper, he turned to the government for help. Lewis lobbied aggressively for collective bargaining rights to be included in the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. The UMW set about aggressively organizing miners, ultimately organizing over 90% of American coal miners. This victory propelled Lewis and the UMW to push for the Bituminous Coal Conservation Act of 1935. Ultimately both laws were overturned and replaced, the NIRA was replaced with the National Labor Relations Act and the BCCA was replaced with the Guffey-Snyder Act. Lewis understood that for American democracy and economic prosperity to survive, workers must have a seat at the table.
After his resoundingly successful organizing campaign in the coal industry, Lewis turned his attention to organizing the thousands of new industrial workers. Lewis’ strategy of organizing workers by industry ran afoul of AFL President Sam Gompers who advocated organizing workers along craft lines. In response, Lewis led the UMW out of the AFL and created the new labor organization, the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The break from the AFL bolstered organizing efforts in the industrial sector
When a vast majority of CIO union members voted for Roosevelt over Lewis’ support of Wendell Willkie, he resigned as president of the CIO and eventually led the UMW out of the CIO in in 1942. He remained president of the UMW until his retirement in 1960, he died four years later.
Video of Lewis testifying before the Labor Subcommittee of the US House of Representatives about the 1947 Centrailia mine disaster