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John L. Lewis

Catherine Rapp
Waterloo High School, Waterloo

John Llewllyn Lewis, nicknamed "Ruthless Unionism" was born in Lucas, Iowa, on February 12, 1880, the son of a Welsh immigrant coal miner. Lewis became one of the most powerful and tyrannical presidents the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) has ever known. Under his leadership, laborers received some of the highest wages and best benefits of the times. His retirement from the presidency of the UMWA ended a forty-year era of change and debate.

When Lewis was two, his father was blacklisted after a miner's strike. Most of Lewis's youth was spent moving from place to place so his father could find work and support the family. Thomas and Louisa Lewis, John's parents, had three more sons, Thomas, Jr., A. D., and Howard, and one daughter, Hattie. In 1897 the blacklist was lifted, and the family returned to Lucas, Iowa.

When John was seventeen, he and his father and his brother, Thomas, went to work in the coal mines. When John Lewis was twenty-one, he moved west to work in mines in Colorado and Montana. Five years later he returned to Lucas. Then in 1906 he was voted to be local delegate to the UMWA convention. This marks the beginning of Lewis's quick rise as a leader of laborers.

A year later, he wed Myrta Bell and together they had three children, Margaret Mary, Kathryn, and John, Jr. Kathryn was the only one of the children to follow in her father's footsteps, and for many years she was an assistant to him. Margaret Mary died in 1921. John, Jr., entered Princeton Medical School and became a doctor.

In 1909, after moving to Panama, Illinois, a small town in the central part of the state, Lewis was elected president of the local UMWA. The following year, he was an Illinois representative on the state legislature of the UMWA. Throughout his career, Lewis was a patron for safety and better conditions in the mines as well as better wages and benefits for the miners.

The year 1911 brought a national position in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). For five years, Lewis's progress to the presidency was steadfast. When, in 1916, Lewis was president of the pro-team at the UMWA convention and appointed chief statistician of the union, his rise to power quickly accelerated.

In 1917 John P. White resigned as president of the UMWA, and the vice president, Frank J. Hayes, succeeded him. President Hayes then appointed John Lewis vice president. Due to President Hayes's alcoholism, John Lewis assumed Hayes's duties in 1919 and became acting president. On November 1, 1919, Lewis called his first strike.

With the Lever Act, which forbade strikes, in effect at the time, U.S. Attorney General Palmer refused negotiations because "the strikers . . . break the law." During negotiations in Washington, Lewis was arrested with others and cited for contempt. Four days later, however, President Woodrow Wilson made a deal with the miners. The miners received a 14 percent wage increase and arbitration of the other issues.

In 1920 Lewis succeeded Hayes to the presidency. The next year he ran for the presidency of the AFL, losing to his opponent Samuel Gompers by a two-to-one margin. Lewis quickly moved on to other things after his defeat. Lewis had angry miners and pitiful mines that needed his attention.

The Jacksonville Agreement signed February 18, 1924, provided the miners with a pay increase, but it also mechanized the mines. The mechanization of the mines was good for the operators, who no longer had to pay workers, but it caused unemployment. After the agreement was signed, the miners who still had jobs only worked an average of 171 days a year.

Through the years until 1932, Lewis became increasingly unpopular. The treasury's funds decreased, miners were not working, and rumors of corruption spread. This is the year the Progressive Mine Workers of America (PMWA) broke away from the UMWA. The PMWA split because Lewis rewrote a contract for the union that contained a 30 percent pay decrease in the six-dollar day, and the PMWA charged that Lewis was in collusion with the mine owners. The new union was formed in Gillespie and Benld in Macoupin County, Illinois.


In 1933 President Roosevelt enacted the National Industry Recovery Act to help end the Depression. The act gave laborers the right to choose their union, and Lewis then used the slogan "The President wants you to join a union." In one year, unions membership quadrupled, and Lewis gained control again. Two months after the act passed, Lewis won the fight for a fifty-cent-a-day pay increase.

Two years later Lewis and eight other major union leaders formed the Committee for Industrial Organizations within the AFL. Lewis's desire to organize the steel industry and disputes with AFL leaders were two reasons for forming the committee. Consequently, this committee launched the Steel Workers' Organizing Committee (STOC). The commitee was expelled from the AFL in May 1938, and in November of the same year, the Committee changed its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). John Lewis was its first president. In 1940 Lewis honored a pledge he made that if Wendell Wilke was not elected President of the United States, Lewis would retire from the CIO presidency.

In 1942, after the death of his wife, Lewis called a strike of the UMWA. At the time, striking was proibited because of the war. When Lewis called the strike, he was denounced by many, including the CIO. In 1943 Lewis removed the UMWA from the CIO and returned it to the AFL, but on December 12, 1947, Lewis disaffiliated with the AFL because of disputes over the Taft-Hartley Act. The act, commonly known as the "Slave Labor Act," controlled strikes, prohibited unions from making contributions to political parties, and demanded that every laborer sign a statement that he/she was not a Communist.

In 1946 Lewis established the Welfare and Retirement Fund. The Fund provided miners and their families with medical care such as hospitalization, death benefits, and treatment for the disabled. When the mine operators refused to pay the royalties on tonnage that supported the fund, Lewis called for a walkout. One week later the fund was approved.

Little more was done by Lewis during the rest of his career. A continuing loss of face caused his decline, though in 1956 he was appointed citizen advisor on President Eisenhower's Mutual Security Program. He retired from his presidency on January 14, 1960. Nine years later, on June 11, 1969, John L. Lewis died.

As all people do, Lewis made mistakes and had triumphs. He had few friends and many enemies. Lewis was a very powerful and stubborn man. These are characteristics that caused few people who met him ever to forget him. John L. Lewis was a leader, for good or for bad.[From Jim Haskins The Long Struggle; Robert Howard, Illinois, A History of the Prairie State; John McCollum, "Strife to Stability: Mining Unionism in Illinois," Illinois History (May 1960); Carl Oblinger, Divided Kingdom; Dan Reitz, "A Brief History of the UMWA," Concerning Coal: An Anthology; Donald Tingley, The Structuring of a State; James Wechsler, Labor Baron. ]

John L. Lewis, influential leader of the United Mine Workers of America for many years, is shown here (at left) with Horace Ainscough, the first retired miner to receive a pension check.

Lewis and Ainscough


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