Wall Street History
John L. Lewis and the UMW, Part II
As we wrap up our story on the United Mine Workers and labor
leader John L. Lewis, it''s the 1930s and Lewis is feeling his oats
as some of the pro-Labor reforms that FDR had instituted aided
the UMW (and other unions) in pumping up their membership.
Wage concessions and gains in working conditions were
achieved across the board in the following years.
But in the late 1930s, as word of Hitler''s maneuverings began to
dominate political thought in the U.S., Lewis, himself, developed
a reputation as a passionate isolationist. The media began to
demonize him as a dictator and a Nazi. Certainly, UMW work
stoppages in May 1939 and the fall of 1941 didn''t help his
image. In ''41, Lewis called a nationwide strike, but, amid
potential wintertime shortages and a denunciation of him as a
traitor, the miners went back to work.December 7, 1941.
So now the nation is at war and in the spring of 1943, Lewis
decided to lead the coal miners out once again. This time, the
vast majority of folks around the country were livid.
Newspapers condemned the action as another traitorous act.
Said an air force pilot in one interview, "I''d just as soon shoot
down one of those strikers as shoot down Japs - they''re doing
just as much to lose the war for us." Lewis became the most
unpopular man in the nation, with 87% of the people holding an
As a result of the ''43 strike, Congress passed the Smith -
Connolly War Labor Disputes Act, which authorized the
government to seize plants useful to the war effort and prohibited
unions from making political contributions. [In 1944 Arkansas
and Florida set in motion a number of "right to work" initiatives
that outlawed the "closed shop" (the ability of the unions to
demand that all employees be members).]
While Lewis''s actions once again led to wage concessions for
the UMW, the loss of public support in organized labor would
not be easily overcome.
But in the spring of 1946, no longer hampered by wartime no-
strike laws, organized labor began to flex its muscles again.
Lewis''s UMW struck the coal mines in March, and, since the
nation had yet to build back up following the war, factories
quickly became inoperative and lights were dimmed across the
land. Just as importantly, the strike also threatened recovery in
Europe. Lewis may have thought that President Truman would
cave to the demands but he guessed wrong. A young aide to
Truman at the time, Clark Clifford, said, "Mr. President, you
have to take him on!" Truman replied, "It''s a fight to the finish."
On May 21, Truman authorized the seizure of the mines by
federal troops in order to prove his point. However, the president
quickly appointed the interior secretary to accept nearly all of the
union''s demands, including an 18.5 cents per-hour wage increase
as well as improved safety regulations and pension funds. Of
course now the mine operators, who had no real say in the
negotiations, were upset!
But by October 1946, John L. Lewis was involved in a power
struggle with other labor leaders. Lewis felt as if he had to do
something to prove that he was Labor''s ultimate force, and,
with his huge ego working overtime, he decided to back off on
the May deal.
Seizing on a minor loophole in the agreement, Lewis demanded
that the UMW''s contract be reopened. It was on the eve of the
mid-term elections and, of course, Lewis knew his timing was
perfect for extracting further gains. But Truman refused to do so
and Lewis then announced that the miners would consider the
contract null and void on November 20.
Truman was not a happy camper and sought an injunction
barring a strike, which was granted on November 18. When
Lewis attempted to see Truman, the president refused to do so.
"The White House is open to anybody with legitimate business,
but not to that son of a bitch," said Harry. Meanwhile, Lewis
had hired an ex-FBI agent to dig up dirt on the judge responsible
for the edict. Finding nothing, Lewis ordered the strike anyway
and on December 3 the UMW was fined $3.5 million (later
reduced to $700,000), and Lewis, personally, $10,000.
With the two sides at loggerheads, Truman announced he was
going on national radio to make an appeal to the miners. Lewis,
fearing that this time he''d end up on the losing end, ordered the
UMW back to work. As author Harold Evans notes, "He had
met his match. His hell-raising days were all but over."
In 1955 the AFL and CIO merged. While the joint membership
was some 17 million, just one-fourth of the entire labor force, it
still accounted for half of the "blue collar" workers. By then,
Labor had generally secured substantial gains over the previous
two decades with a 40-hour week, vacations with pay, and
healthcare and pension benefits becoming the norm. Lewis was
largely responsible for enactment of the latter, as he got coal
operators to set aside a "royalty" of $100 a month for a miner''s
pension fund, a benefit quickly adopted by most other industries.
For this alone, John L. Lewis deserves to be noted, because the
modern pension system led to a more stabilized work force.
But while Lewis retired in 1960 (at age 80), the UMW remained
in the spotlight. On January 5, 1970, union dissident Joseph
Yablonski was murdered along with his wife and daughter.
Yablonski had been an unsuccessful candidate for UMW president
and he had attempted to expose the corruption within the
organization. The 1969 campaign, which elected "Tony" Boyle,
had been declared void because union funds and facilities had
been used in Boyle''s bid for office.
In 1971, Boyle was found guilty of ordering the murders and the
following year Paul Gilly was sentenced to death for carrying it
out. [Gilly''s wife pleaded guilty to the conspiracy and
implicated Boyle in the crime.]
So on that cheery note, we have finally come to a conclusion in
the history of the United Mine Workers.
For the next three weeks I am going to update some of the
market statistics, which I have previously introduced in this link.
Sources: Same as last week.