Wall Street History
John L. Lewis and the UMW, Part I
I was amazed to see zero, zippo, nada, on John L. Lewis in the
standard Wall Street history books, including all of the latest
entries. Lewis is arguably the most important labor union figure
in American history, and, since labor is the predominant cost of
any product, and, with Wall Street being all about American
business, ergo, John L. Lewis is a pretty important figure. So the
next few weeks we''ll delve into his role in the shaping of not
only the modern American labor union, but also the fiscal health
of the average worker in this country.
Lewis made his mark in leading the United Mine Workers
(UMW), so we are also picking up the story of the union, as
detailed the previous three weeks in this space.
While the UMW had made a series of strides in the early 1900s,
the coal industry came upon hard times in the 1920s, and
between 1920 and 1932, membership in the UMW declined from
500,000 to 150,000. The membership increasingly perceived
that their gains of the previous twenty years were being whittled
Enter John L. Lewis. Lewis was born in 1880, the son of Welsh
immigrant parents who had settled in a coal-mining town in
Iowa. John followed his father and brother into the mines,
building up firsthand experience, and, in his spare time, he was
an actor at the local theater, something that would also aid in his
development as a labor leader.
Lewis became president of the UMW in 1920, a tough time to do
so. Little is written of him over the next decade or so. The
American public had grown impatient with unions, overall, and
the UMW was certainly no exception. But when the Depression
hit, Americans of all stripes found themselves in the same boat,
especially miners. Those who had earned $7 day before the
crash, begged for the opportunity to work for $1. And they also
begged for a lump or two of coal to help heat their homes. With
the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, however,
there was some light at the end of the dark shaft.
Soon after taking office, Roosevelt approved the National
Industrial Recovery Act (NRA), which attempted to improve the
lot of the working man by raising wages, reducing hours,
eliminating sweatshop conditions and safeguarding the right to
organize as well as collective bargaining.
A key passage of the NRA was embodied in section 7a:
"Employees shall have the right to organize and bargain
collectively, through representatives of their own choosing, and
shall be free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of
employers of labor, or their agents, in the designation of such
representative or in self-organization or in other concerted
activities.and that no employee and no one seeking
employment shall be required as a condition of employment to
join any company union or to refrain from joining.a labor
organization of his own choosing."
Lewis and other labor leaders took this passage as their signal to
let loose with the message. 7a was quickly translated to mean,
"The President wants you to join the union." For its part, the
UMW gained back almost all of its losses since 1920, adding
over 300,000 in just two months. The situation was similar in
John L. Lewis quickly became a player. Historian David
Kennedy described Lewis as follows:
"Dour-visaged, thickly eyebrowed, richly maned, his 230-pound
bulk always impeccably tailored, Lewis was a man of ursine
appearance and volcanic personality, a no-holds barred advocate
for labor and a fearsome adversary."
From author Harold Evans:
"There was method in Lewis''s florid style beyond the
compulsions of his colossal ego. He judged the average union
worker wanted a man who could stand toe to toe with the big
business tycoons. He was ruthless, cunning, opportunistic."
It was said that Lewis''s ego "stretched as far as the undulating
Iowa corn fields of his youth." And he certainly was known for
his rhetoric, which was like no other, before or since.
Commenting on an ally who was waffling on a key issue, Lewis
once said, "Mr. Dubinsky, whom I highly esteem, is apparently
giving an imitation of Eliza crossing the ice. Like Lot''s wife he
is looking backward. He must decide for himself whether he is
fish, fowl or good red herring."
While he was often accused of being a demagogue, John L.
Lewis mostly pursued a moderate agenda. Asked what rights the
average workingman ought to have, he once said, "The right to
organize, (as well as) shorter hours, the prohibition of child
labor, equal pay for men and women doing substantially the
same kind of work, (and a guarantee) that all who are able to
work and willing shall have the opportunity for steady
employment." [David Kennedy] In other words, every worker
should be able to have a middle-class existence. More often,
though, Lewis''s oratory was more on the lines of testimony he
gave to a Senate panel in 1933.
"American labor stands between the rapacity of the robber
barons of industry.and the lustful rage of the communists, who
would lay waste to our traditions and our institutions with fire
After NRA was passed, while the unions gained in membership,
they still had a hard time winning actual concessions. Big
business, of course, was intimidated by Labor''s gains. So it
was up to New York Senator Robert Wagner to reinvigorate the Labor
friendly NRA with the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, better
known as the "Wagner Act." This established an independent
National Labor Relations Board authorized to conduct plant
elections and issue "cease and desist" orders against unfair
practices, including interference with or coercion of employees
in collective bargaining.
A re-energized Lewis then set about expanding the role of Labor
beyond specific trade unions. But in 1935, he took the UMW out
of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) due to the AFL''s
hesitancy to unionize factory workers. So Lewis formed the
Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
[There was a certain "snob factor" at work here. The AFL viewed
itself as the union for the "skilled worker," and thus saw no room
for the new immigrants who were coming to America and taking
the menial factory jobs. These were the ones that Lewis wanted
As the 1936 election approached, Lewis, a staunch Republican
who had supported Hoover in 1932, backed FDR, as did
countless millions in American Labor who saw Roosevelt as its
champion. Lewis opened up his treasury and the UMW
contributed nearly half a million dollars to the Democrat''s
campaign. Of course, Lewis expected something in return. And
it''s here, boys and girls, where the modern Labor movement
became inextricably intertwined with politics.
But while Roosevelt was seen as pro-Labor, he really sought to
give workers an increased chance to live the good life (by
improving their purchasing power, in other words), as opposed to
granting them political leverage. The issue was to be pensions,
wages, and work rules versus collective bargaining powers.
By 1937, FDR, while supporting the Labor movement, was
growing increasingly disenchanted with its behavior. That year,
Lewis had been trying to organize a union for steelworkers at the
Republic Steel plant in Chicago. Unrest followed and police
killed ten strikers. FDR was furious. Said Lewis, "It ill
behooves one who has supped at Labor''s table and who has been
sheltered in Labor''s house to curse with equal fervor and fine
impartiality both Labor and its adversaries when they become
locked in a deadly embrace." In 1940, Lewis would back the
Republican candidate for president. [But, afterwards, as workers
became more organized they were closely identified with the
Next week, we''ll finally wrap-up this series on the UMW with
more on John L. Lewis.
"The American Century," Harold Evans
"The Growth of the American Republic," Morison, Commager,
"America: A Narrative History," Tindall and Shi
"American Heritage: The Presidents," Michael Beschloss
"Freedom From Fear," David Kennedy