John L Lewis Essay, Research Paper
February 24, 2000
A working man’s man
John L. Lewis
John L. Lewis started life in Lucas County, Iowa February 12, 1880 the son of Thomas Lewis, a coal miner and policeman. John was welsh born. In the 1880’s and the 1890’s their family lived in a company owned shanty with an outdoor privy.
Whet John was in his teens they moved to Des Moines. That is where John attended high school, completing almost all of his four years of schooling. Family ties were strong, even though he did not approve of his mothers religion he did obey her when it came to sexuality and alcohol usage. For the most part he was not a troublemaker and played by the rules.
In the late 1890’s his family moved back to Lucas County and there he became a coal miner. In 1901, he was elected secretary of the United MineWorkers of America. As holding this job, he set up many small events. That same year he left for four years to work out west in coal mines. With him doing this he saw many disasters and aided in many heroic deeds to lend him authenticity to his claim to speak for the working class.
In 1905 John returned to Lucas and in 1907 he ran for mayor however he was not elected and all the Lewises left Iowa and moved to southern mining town in Illinois. There the men in the family soon established themselves among the large labor force as hard workers. In 1910 John was elected president of the local mining union 1475, one of the largest in the state.
Shortly before leaving Iowa, he had married Myrta Edith Bell, the daughter of a local physician. She provided a stable home life but she did not care for her husband’s politics. They kept their personal life and his political life very separated.
John’s leadership in southern Illinois led to advancement in the labor movement. He was now the legislative agent for the UMWA of Illinois. From there on until 1920 when he became president of UMWA. He kept moving up the union corporate ladder until he was on top.
During the 1920’s The UMWA declined rapidly, though the union had won some strikes about wages the competition between oil and coal was resulting in layoffs in the South and the Midwest. With John’s stubbornness his saying was “no step backward” (Lewis, Time movie) meaning that he would not negotiate lower wages even if it means thousands lose their jobs. In the late 1920’s, the UMWA lost about 80% of their members. This drastically reduced the power of the UMWA. This personally offended John because he used to be a miner. John was blamed for this because of the harsh way that the people thought that he had dealt with the mine owners.
In 1928 he wrote the book The Miners Fight for American Standards, which combined a grim depiction of miner’s poverty with a call for the extension of modern standards. “Only through a powerful union could the miners get out of poverty.” (A Miners Life, Alinsky)
In the early 1930’s, John played an important role in the making of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, which helped the UMWA by giving the money and aid during the depression. John launched a campaign to rebuild the UMWA with also including the before nonunion South. This campaign was trying to get the coal miners of America to regain their trust is the union.
After WWII had broken out and the Americans had entered the war, the UMWA singed the no strike pledge. Coal production was booming but the accident rate was up to, also the miners were sinking farther and farther into poverty because of growing inflation. In 1943, John led a series of walkout strikes with 500,000 miners for better wages and safer conditions. Since the UMWA singed the no strike plan these walkouts were not backed by the union they were called wildcat strikes. They were usually short in duration; they really did not effect the national coal reserves. Cause of these walkouts congress passed the Smith-Connally Act, which subjected unions to tighter regulations about strikes. John did get health care and pensions from these strikes. After the war the need and use of coal was dropping drastically. With this happening many men left the union to get other jobs, this weakened the stability of the union. John was approaching his 80th birthday and all the years of being president he was left with no friends, so he decided to retire after 40, he resigned in 1960. His predecessor was his administrative assistant W. A. Boyle.
“LEWIS, John L”
“John L. Lewis”
Alinsky, Saul. A Miners Life.
Illinois: Dover publications, 1964
Sulzberger, C. L. The Lean Years.
New York: Unwell Press, 1960