Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans – John L. Lewis

Jul 22, 2015 by


An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans- John L. Lewis

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Elder, in this interview we are going to delve into somewhat murky waters- that of unions. I suspect there are pros, cons and concerns, and a long history- and we are going to lay a foundation today, with one name that seems to stand out- John L. Lewis- when and where was he born and where did he go to school?

John Llewellyn Lewis was born in Cleveland, a small town in Lucas County, Iowa on February 12, 1880. At that time, southeastern Iowa was a major source of coal, and Lewis’s father worked in a mine located near Cleveland. Lewis attended elementary school in Lucas County, but in 1882 his father lost his job and the family had to move. In that year, there had been a strike at the mine that Lewis’s father worked at, and it is believed that he had been blacklisted because of his participation in that work stoppage. The family eventually settled in Des Moines, where Lewis was able to attend high school for three years. In 1897, Lewis moved back to Lucas County, and went to work in a coal mine. He would never attend school again.

2) When was his first foray into the realm of unions and workers’ rights?

 As soon as he was hired as a miner, John L. Lewis became a member of a labor union known as the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Because of the education that he had attained, Lewis became the secretary of his local chapter. After working in Iowa for four years, Lewis went to the West to ply his trade as a miner. Upon his return to Lucas County, he once again became active in the UMWA. In 1906, he represented his local chapter at the national convention of the UMWA.

In 1907, Lewis moved to Panama, Illinois, to work in newly developed coal fields located near that community. Continuing his union activity, he was soon elected president of the local chapter. This was soon followed by his appointment as the agent for the union with the Illinois state legislature. His abilities soon brought him to the attention of Samuel Gompers, who had founded the American Federation of Labor. Gompers hired Lewis to serve as a union organizer. In 1917, Lewis became the statistician for the UMWA, and in that same year he became the union’s vice-president. By 1919 he had become for all intents and purposes the president of the union, an arrangement that was made permanent in 1920. Lewis would use this position to become the most powerful labor leader in American history.

3) Some unions strike for better working conditions, some for more money, some for various benefits (health, dental, etc.). Did John L. Lewis have a specific agenda, and could you describe it? 

A priority for Lewis resulted from an experience that occurred early in his working career. While working in Wyoming, a mining disaster claimed the lives of over 200 workers, and from that moment on Lewis became a champion for safer working conditions. Decent wages were also a concern of his, and in 1924 he attempted to convince mine owners to establish a minimum daily wage for coal miners. Unsuccessful in this effort, he felt compelled to resort to strikes to secure higher wages. Lewis also worked to have a pension fund created for coal workers, along with other benefits. Although his methods were not always popular with the public, Lewis succeeded to a remarkable degree in achieving his goals.

4) There are some realms such as police, firemen etc,, that are not legally allowed to “strike” per se. What was John L. Lewis’s position in this regard? 

Calvin Coolidge, when governor of Massachusetts, once said that “no one has the right to strike against the public good,” but John L. Lewis never embraced this concept. Indeed, he earned widespread contempt for calling a strike in 1943, during the midst of the Second World War. During the early years of the Cold War, Lewis earned a sharp rebuke from President Harry Truman for jeopardizing national security with a number of strikes. His tactics usually won concessions from management in the short run, but in the long run cost the labor movement a great deal of favor with the American public.

5) When did John L. Lewis first come to public attention? 

As we have seen, Lewis became the acting president of the UMWA in 1919. He wasted no time in wielding his power, announcing a general strike on November 1, 1919. Over 400,000 coal miners responded by walking away from their mines. Because of the importance of coal as a fuel, this made Lewis a national figure. He gained even greater fame in 1935, when he created the Committee for Industrial Organization as a part of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). When the AFL decided to cut its ties with the new group, Lewis renamed it the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and became its president. His success in organizing factory workers made him a household name—albeit not always a popular one.

6) In your mind, what was his greatest accomplishment?

Lewis will always be recognized for the tremendous success that he had in organizing labor. Indeed, the ranks of unions increased significantly during his lifetime, and it is inarguable that he was the driving force behind the enhanced quality of life for his union members. Although labor unions have lost much of the importance they once held, all union members to this day owe much of their prosperity to the efforts of Lewis.

7) What endeavors did he pursue in his later years? 

At a time when virtually everyone retired upon turning 65, Lewis continued to serve as the president of the UMWA. Indeed, he would hold that position until he turned 80. His remaining years were spent quietly in retirement. Lewis would live another 9 years, passing away at the age of 89.

8) What have I neglected to ask about this person, and how do historians regard him? 

Lewis was a truly remarkable man. With only a limited education, he became one of the nation’s most important individuals. While much of this success is due to Lewis himself, it should be noted that his greatest successes in life came after he married his wife Myrta in Lucas County, Iowa in 1907. A doctor’s child, Myrta was well educated and was a teacher when she married Lewis. She is credited by many for encouraging Lewis to expand on his base of knowledge. It should also be noted that much of Lewis’s success is attributed to his powers of persuasion. Here again, his days in Lucas County undoubtedly helped Lewis in this regard. Although it has suffered from population loss over the last century, Lucas County was during Lewis’s day there quite prosperous, and boasted an opera house. Lewis participated in performances at that venue, and developed theatric skills that would later serve him well. Lewis thus illustrates that place of birth is not a limiting factor; indeed, it can provide opportunities that might otherwise be denied.

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