John L. Lewis: The Titan Behind the Mining Labor Movement

Table of Contents

John L. Lewis

Photograph of John L. Lewis (circa 1922)

Source: The World’s Work by Paul Thompson

Who was John L. Lewis? 

Larger-than-life, John Llewellyn Lewis (1880-1969) led the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) from 1920 to 1960. He prioritized better wages, working conditions, and benefits for the American mining community above all else. Even to the detriment of his own popularity or social standing. 

Unlike other labor leaders, Lewis advocated for industrial unionism rather than trade unionism. Meaning, he believed organizing a whole industry would yield better outcomes than unionizing based on one’s trade. A testament to his approach, the huge growth in the labor movement came much in part to his collaborative efforts with other major industries. 

The Zero Theft Movement, along with our community, is working to cut out the rigged parts of the U.S. economy in order for the healthy, ethical parts to thrive. For you and the whole public. John L. Lewis, through his singular focus, managed to improve the lives of American miners to this day. In this article, we will cover his life’s work and how that may apply to the economic problems in the U.S. today.

The Climb Out of the Coal Mine

The son of Welsh immigrants, John L. Lewis was born in the coal town of Cleveland, Lucas County, Iowa. The local economy, from the local shops to employment, was primarily run by a coal mining company. It had developed a mine in Lucas about a mile away from the town.

Lewis left high school before graduating, beginning work in the Big Hill Mine at Lucas at the age of 15. Nine years later, his co-workers elected Lewis as a delegate to the UMWA national convention. He made a failed attempt at transitioning into politics in 1907, when he ran for mayor of Lucas. While Lewis returned to mining, he felt he belonged on the big stage, under bright lights. 

In 1909, he moved to Panama, Illinois and was elected president of the UMW local. Lewis’ efforts to pass workers’ compensation and mine-safety legislative reforms caught the eye of Samuel Gompers, the leader of the American Federation of Labor. Gompers, in 1911, hired Lewis as a full-time union organizer. The new position had Lewis journeying through the coal and steel districts in Pennsylvania and the Midwest as an organizer and trouble-shooter.

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John L. Lewis Makes a Name for Himself

Despite his lack of formal schooling, John L. Lewis displayed his talents as a leader, strategist, and orator. Combined with his towering stature, his colorful, fiery speeches roused the spirits of countless miners. 

To provide an example of his speechifying, here’s an excerpt from his famous 1937 ‘Labor and the Nation’ speech: “No tin-hat brigade of goose-stepping vigilantes or a bibble-babbling mob of blackguarding and corporation paid scoundrels will prevent the onward march of labor, or divert its purpose to play its natural and rational part in the development of the economic, political and social life of our nation.”

His career during the late 1910s and 1920s saw Lewis simultaneously working for the UMWA and the AFL. He experienced his greatest successes with the former organization likely due to his focus on mining. 

Ascendancy in the UMWA

Lewis managed to climb the ranks of the UMWA, eventually reaching the presidency in 1919. That same year, he famously called for the first major coal union strike, wherein nearly 400,000 miners refused to work for over a month in order to secure their fair share of the industry’s World War I gains.  

According to historian Stanley Coben, Lewis withdrew his strike call after facing criminal charges, but the strikers did not follow suit. Coal supplies were running low. Coal operators and the media condemned the strike (and the labor movement, as a whole), contributing to and playing off of the First Red Scare. After a long battle, the government and the UMWA eventually reached a deal including a 14% wage increase and the formation of an investigatory commission that would look into wage issues.

The United Mine Workers Coal Strike in 1919

The United Mine Workers Coal Strike in 1919

Source: Library of Congress

In 1924, Lewis drafted the Jacksonville Agreement, a three-year contract between the UMWA and the coal operators that would secure a pay rate of $7.50 per day amongst other protections.

History and sociology professor Melvyn Dubofsky wrote: “The so-called Jacksonville Agreement, to which [Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover] acted as godfather, provided for a three-year contract that preserved existing terms, provisions, and conditions in the union mines and eliminated the threat of strikes. With due deference to Hoover, Lewis said of the agreement: ‘We must give economic laws free play…It is survival of the fittest. Many are going to be hurt, but the rule must be the greatest good for the greatest number.’” 

Lewis greatly impressed President Coolidge and Hoover to the point that he received an offer to serve as the Secretary of Labor in the president’s cabinet. The Jacksonville Agreement, however, had serious enforcement loopholes and coal operators hired non-union miners.

Although little came of the deal and the UMWA had been drained of its resources, John L. Lewis managed to keep his leadership position and steward the organization through a difficult period. He even emerged victorious during the 1925 anthracite (hard coal) miners’ strike due to his charisma and oratorical talents. 

A Peripheral Player in the AFL 

Despite his promotions and successes leading the UMWA, Lewis failed to ascend the ranks of the AFL. Perhaps this was more due to his focus on labor issues specific to miners rather than the labor movement in general. 

In 1921, William Green (a member of the UMWA) nominated Lewis for the presidency of the AFL. The old faithful Samuel Gompers, however, won by a two-to-one margin, but he soon passed away in 1924. Green succeeded Gompers, and John L. Lewis remained a fringe player in the AFL. Eventually, he would completely sever ties from the organization.

Lewis cartoon

Lewis, due to his larger-than-life stature, large head, and bushy eyebrows, was often depicted in funny political cartoons

Great Depression, Great Resurgence

But the roaring twenties would eventually pass with a whimper, as the 1930s ushered in the Great Depression. 

By the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election as president in 1932, UMWA membership had dipped from 400,000 to 75,000. 72% of America’s bituminous coal was being mined by non-union labor at starvation wages. Worker rights had clearly regressed, but Lewis remained dedicated to the labor movement.

Lewis had long thought that the cutthroat and temperamental coal industry could be tamed by a robust union. He went about achieving such a union through legislation and nationwide membership drives. Using his membership in the Labor Advisory Board and the National Labor Board of the National Recovery Administration, he managed to get multiple bills (e.g. the Guffey Coal Act) to protect miners’ wages and rights passed. 

Coupled with the push for legislation came efforts to organize miners across the nation. Lewis took a chance on a massive membership drive, capitalizing on FDR’s popularity in the slogan: “The President wants you to join the UMW!”  Soon enough, with the help of the National Labors Relations Act, over 90% of the nation’s miners had joined the UMWA.

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John L. Lewis Splits From the AFL

Gompers had founded the AFL on the principle of craft unionism. Restricting union membership by location and one’s trade. Lewis instead pushed for industrial unionism, where all workers involved in an industry participate in the union. 

In 1935, Lewis gathered leaders from other large industrial unions (e.g. steel, clothing, rubber) and formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) to champion industrial unionism. The CIO experienced much early success in each of their target industries. For example, in 1937, CIO executed successful strikes to secure collective-bargaining contracts with General Motors and United States Steel.

The AFL, in November 1938, eventually expelled the entire CIO because of the conflict in approach. Lewis became the group’s official inaugural president. The CIO rivaled its one-time ally in notoriety, membership, and power. But the organizations perhaps wasted precious time fighting for dominance when they could have supported one another.

 John L. Lewis TIME cover

John L. Lewis was known for his explosive personality. Hence this 1946 TIME cover with his head attached to a volcano

Source: TIME

World War II & the Long Goodbye

John L. Lewis’ unending and rigid dedication to the mining community eventually turned the public against him. He vehemently opposed U.S. participation in World War II. Also, he continued to prioritize workers’ rights above all else, even the war effort, calling for miners to walk off the job if they didn’t receive proper wages. Around 500,000 workers left their stations, resulting in power shortages and impeded war production. Many condemned him for his supposed lack of patriotism, but the miners held him in high regard. 

Even his fellow unionists within the CIO began to resent him when he supported GOP presidential candidate Wendell Willkkie over FDR. Lewis had doubts whether the ‘King Franklin’ actually supported labor unions, but few shared his concerns. 

By 1942, the lumbering giant of the coal mines had stepped down as the president of the CIO and cut any ties between the UMWA and the industrial union movement. But this was still far from Lewis’ end. 

Although the UMWA slowly declined over the next two years, Lewis managed to incrementally improve wages and benefits for union miners. He arguably had his greatest success in 1948, when he established the UMWA Health and Retirement Fund. The fund, partially financed by royalties on coal, remains in operation today and provides medical and pension benefits for union coal miners. Lewis eventually retired as the union’s president in 1960. 

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He remained the Chairman of the UMWA Health and Retirement Fund until his death in 1969. 

John L. Lewis’ Relevance to the U.S. Economy Today

“The workers of the nation were tired of waiting for corporate industry to right their economic wrongs, to alleviate their social agony and to grant them their political rights. Despairing of fair treatment, they resolved to do something for themselves.”

All workers, but especially miners, are still benefiting from John L. Lewis’ advocacy. Working conditions across industries have drastically improved from the 20th century, but that does not mean serious systemic problems do not exist. 

In the mining industry, a (relatively) recent controversy emerged regarding hardrock mining. Hardrock mining refers to the extraction of non-fuel metal and mineral deposits of solid ores or eroded deposits in streambeds. Think gold, copper, lead, even uranium. The economic problem is twofold: (1) American taxpayers might not be getting properly compensated for hardrock mining on federal land and (2) foreign corporations could be paying close to nothing for using U.S. mines. 

According to American Progress, the laws and regulation for hardrock mining are scant in comparison to those governing oil, gas, and coal extractions. The organization writes, “For example, oil and gas companies must pay a royalty of 12.5 percent on resources taken from public lands. Hardrock mining companies, by comparison, pay zero percent. Oil and gas companies must pay a rental rate of $1.50 per acre on their leases, whereas hardrock-mining companies do not pay rent.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts reported stating that “failure by Congress to require the mining industry to pay royalties on minerals taken from federal public lands, added to various tax breaks and subsidies companies enjoy, will cost American taxpayers more than $160 million annually—an estimated $1.6 billion over the next decade. This amount does not include an additional $20 billion to $54 billion in cleanup costs, much of which will be paid by taxpayers.”

We’re not just talking about millions lost here. Hardrock mining can be a serious health hazard. In truth, this is just one part of the mining industry that could be rigged against the public. Maybe other parts require investigation, and then what about the many other industries that make up the U.S. economy? We’re talking about citizens collectively losing trillions a year due to potential rigging. 

If we want to receive our fair share, we must “resolve to do something for [ourselves].”

So what can you do? 

Standard Disclaimer

The Zero Theft Movement does not have any interest in partisan politics/competition or attacking/defending one side. We seek to eradicate theft from the U.S economy. In other words, how the wealthy and powerful rig the system to steal money from us, the everyday citizen. We need to collectively fight against crony capitalism in order for us to all profit from an ethical economy.   

Terms like ‘steal,’ ‘theft,’ and ‘crime’ will frequently appear throughout the article. Zero Theft will NOT adhere strictly to the legal definitions of these terms (since congress sells out). We have broadly and openly defined terms like ‘steal’ and ‘theft’ to refer to the rigged economy and other debated unethical acts that can cause citizens to lose out on money they deserve to keep.  

Join the Zero Theft Movement to Fight the Rigged Economy

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Beyond John L. Lewis…

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We regularly publish educational articles on, just like this one on John L. Lewis. They teach you all about the rigged layer of the economy in short, digestible pieces.