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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 169

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This is the grave of John L. Lewis.

Born near Cleveland, Iowa in 1888, Lewis came from a largely lapsed Mormon family that he later claimed influenced his desire to fight for the poor. At the age of 17, he entered a coal mine near Lucas, Iowa. He was instantly attracted to unionism and was elected to the United Mine Workers of America convention in 1906, still only 18 years of age. The next year, already showing tremendous ambition, he ran an unsuccessful bid for mayor of Lucas. Losing, he moved to Illinois, got another job in a coal mine and was elected president of his local in 1909. Seeing tremendous potential in this young man, Samuel Gompers hired Lewis as a full-time organizer in 1911. He worked for the AFL for a few years before going to work for the UMWA full-time, becoming the union’s active president in 1919 and then was elected president on his own in 1920.

As president of the UMWA, Lewis was a contradictory, often infuriating and tyrannical, figure. He ran his union like a dictator, tolerating no dissent. After the coal war in West Virginia in 1921 that led to the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest moment of internal insurrection since the Civil War, Lewis eliminated the local leaders who had dared challenge him. He had a titanic temper and had no trouble showing it. He came to power at a tremendously difficult time for his union, which was in the midst of being utterly crushed during the 1920s. He was holding on for sheer survival in this atmosphere. He was a politically conservative Republican outside of labor issues. Calvin Coolidge offered him the position of Secretary of Labor. Lewis declined and regretted that the rest of his life. He took over union locals that were seen as too independent or too far to the left. Other union leaders in the UMWA called him a class traitor. He hated socialists.

Lewis also became famous for using the tremendous organizing capacities of communists to build the CIO in the 1930s. He personally led a massive and long-overdue transition in the American labor movement to industrial unionism, organizing the millions of unskilled industrial workers, including women, Latinos, and African-Americans, which the AFL largely refused to do. When he faced anger within the AFL for this, he punched his former poker buddy, the equally politically conservative United Brotherhood of Carpenters president Big Bill Hutcheson, in the face on the stage of the AFL Convention in Atlantic City. Then once he built up the CIO, he turned on Franklin Delano Roosevelt with such a fury that he became isolated within his own federation and resigned from CIO head after the 1940 election. During World War II, Lewis was the one union leader who ignored the no-strike pledge Roosevelt asked of American labor in return for maintenance of membership clauses to build up their unions. Lewis brought the UMWA out on strike in 1943, making him the nation’s most unpopular man. He did not care.

What ties all of this together? John L. Lewis truly believed in justice for miners. That was his overarching concern. His belief in an old-school Gompersesque “pure and simple unionism,” or a unionism that focused strictly on the needs of workers outside of the political realm, could never work in the CIO, which is why his time as its head was nearly impossible to imagine as very long. What made the CIO work was how it integrated itself into the Democratic Party during World War II. In this, people such as Sidney Hillman and Walter Reuther were men of the new generation who understood how labor would have to connect itself to the state. Even when the right-wing backlash against unions took place after World War II, after sloughing off a lot of unions leadership found troublesome anyway, as well as United Electric, which was much larger and more of a problem to get rid of, the ultimate place of the CIO influencing policy was still ensured. That would have limitations, as we see today, but Lewis certainly had no better answer at the time and was just holding unionism back by this time.

Interestingly, Lewis had brought the UMWA back into the AFL by 1947, but then immediately left it again when the Taft-Hartley Act required the anti-communist affidavit of union leaders. Lewis was very much not a communist, but he refused to acquiesce to the government. So then the UMWA became an independent union, which is probably where Lewis was more comfortable anyway. Because of the power of the UMWA, Lewis was a notorious figure in the public eye, leading to such images as this classic Time cover from 1946.

Lewis remained in full control of his union through the 1950s. He was certainly fighting for better lives for the miners, but he was also keeping union locals in receivership for decades, giving them to his allies and put his family and friends in highly-paid positions. It wasn’t until the passage of the Landrum-Griffin Act in 1959, making long-term international control over locals illegal, that Lewis finally retried in 1960. He died in 1969 in Alexandria, Virginia, where had lived since 1937. Meanwhile his union spun downward thanks to corrupt Lewis followers who didn’t care about the actual miners until the assassination of Jock Yablonski ordered by UMWA president Tony Boyle in 1970.

John L. Lewis is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois.

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