John L. Lewis

By: Sean McKay

John L. Lewis led a life that was devoted to the UMWA.  He was viewed as a giant among American leaders in the first half of the twentieth century, regularly advising presidents and challenging America's corporate leaders (5).  All of this fighting led him to becoming one of the most prestigious presidents the UMWA has ever had.

John Llewellyn Lewis was born in Iowa on February 12, 1880 as the son of immigrants from Wales (1).  At the ripe age of fifteen he found his work as a miner in Illinois.  He later joined the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), but nobody realized how strong of a leader he would become for the UMWA.  Although his first leadership role in the UMWA was being elected as the branch secretary (1).

In 1911 Lewis left the mines to become an organizer for the American Federation of Labour (AFL).  Then in 1917 John L. Lewis was named the vice president of the UMWA (1).  Suddenly in 1919 Lewis became acting president of the UMWA due to ill-health preventing the present president, Frank Hayes, from fulfilling his duties in office (3).

Due to Frank Hayes's health never returning, John L. Lewis was elected president in 1920 where he would remain for the next 40 years, when mass changes in not only the UMWA but in the United States would occur.   Lewis not only wanted to be the president of the UMWA but he attempted to become the president of the American Federation of Labour but failed in 1921 while running against Samuel Gompers (1).

The 1930's would turn out to be the first big test for John L. Lewis as president of the UMWA. With growing unemployment, membership of the UMWA fell from 500,000 to less than 100,000 in the 1930's due to the great depression (1).  Lewis felt he had a solution to all of this and in 1935 Lewis joined with the heads of seven other unions to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).  Lewis would become president and over the next few years attempted to organize workers in the new mass production industries (1).  Lewis's strategy worked and became very successful and by 1937 the CIO had more members than the American Federation of Labour.  His work to organize the country's industrial workers through the CIO in the 1930's helped raise the standards for millions of American families.  In the first year of the CIO wages were raised by over a billions dollars (5).

Along with creating the CIO, Lewis was also talking with the Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1932 and 1936 elections (1).  Lewis favored his New Deal, but was opposed to Roosevelt standing again in 1940 and threatened to resign as president of the Congress of Industrial Organization if Roosevelt was reelected.  After Roosevelt was reelected he carried out his threat but retained his leadership of the United Mine Workers of America.

The 1940's were a much different situation for John L. Lewis; he was in the midst of a several strikes throughout the country.  These strikes were brought about by asking for higher wages for the mine workers.  He led over a half-a-million mine workers on strike.  The strike resulted in union membership to rise to 500,000 members (2).  The government called the strike illegal and ordered the miners back to work, but only 15,000 returned to work (2).  This strike closed down steel mills for two weeks during the height of World War II; power shortages threatened to cripple the war effort (2).  Miners believed in Lewis and felt he would fight for anything they wanted, one miner stated, "If John L. Lewis told us to go on strike tomorrow, we would go out, even if it meant going to prison for 20 years" (2).  Then in March of 1947, the United Mine Workers began new wage negotiations.  But six days before the labor contract was supposed to expire an explosion in Centralia, Illinois killed 111 miners.  The union called a six day strike to honor the dead.  Then on April 3, 1947, Lewis testified before Congress.  He spoke for five hours, this was in the days without megaphones and electronic amplification.  Lewis never tired and fought for what he thought was right for his mine workers (2).

Due to the success of the UMWA in asking for their wage increases, congress went along and passed the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) (3).  The Taft-Hartley Act placed new restrictions on trade unions.  Congress was very unhappy that the UMWA got what they wanted, they felt it should be more difficult to go on strike, especially during a time of need when were in a world war.

Some say Lewis' greatest legacy was the creation of the UMWA Welfare and Retirement Fund in a contract with the federal government, signed in the White House with President Truman present.  This fund was a great accomplishment in that it built eight hospitals in Appalachia and established numerous clinics.  It permanently changed health care delivery in the coal fields throughout the United States (5).

Upon John L. Lewis' retirement in 1960 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  This is the highest civilian decoration in this country, by the president at the time, John F. Kennedy (5).  He remained as the chairman of the UMWA until his death on June 11th, 1969 in Washington D.C.

John L. Lewis led a life of many accomplishments.  Many consider him as the colossus of American Labor, he was an eloguent spokesman for working people throughout the U.S. President of the United Mine Workers for over four strong decades (4).  Throughout his tunure as president he raised wages for his employees, he established health care that hadn't been seen in their field before.  Not only did he do all of this for his fellow union members, he was one of the main reasons for the revitalization of the U.S. labor movement in the thirties with his formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.  Although many times he was considered very controversial in some of his workings, he was one of the most admired, feared, effective and colorful trade unionists in American history (4).


  1. "Coal Miners' Hero."  John L. Lewis.  (01 October 2000).
  2. "John L. Lewis." October 15, 2000. (01 October 2000).
  3. "John L. Lewis."  UMWA.  (01 October 2000).
  4. "United Mine Workers Union."  John L. Lewis. October 15, 2000.  (01 October 2000).
  5. "1989 Honoree, John L. Lewis."  U.S. DOL Labor Hall of Fame Honoree. March 02, 1999. (01 October 2000).

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