Lewis, John Llewellyn
(1880-1969)
   The son of a Welsh immigrant, John L. Lewis was born in Iowa, where he began work in the coal mines in the 1890s. In 1907, he moved to Illinois, and he was elected president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) local in 1910. In 1911, Lewis was appointed as a field representative for the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and in 1917 he became vice president of the UMWA. He was elected president in 1920 and held the position until his retirement in 1960.
   UMWA membership declined during the 1920s as the coal industry shrank in the face of foreign competition and the increased use of oil. The drop in membership increased with the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Lewis, however, capitalized on the change in political climate with the advent of the New Deal and began to mobilize trade union membership. Lewis argued for the AFL to take a more militant approach and focus on organizing workers on an industry wide basis rather than by craft. As differences within the AFL exploded into physical conflict in 1935, he joined with Sidney Hillman and David Dubinsky to establish a Committee for Industrial Organization. The committee became the leading force in increasing union membership during the 1930s, and Lewis played an active role in these developments. In 1938, the Committee for Industrial Organizations became an autonomous labor organization, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
   Lewis became increasingly critical of the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt and in 1940 openly supported the Republican candidate, Wendell Willkie. In 1940, he also stepped down as president of the CIO. Lewis’s growing opposition to Roosevelt’s war administration caused differences within the CIO leadership, and in 1942 Lewis took the UMWA out of the organization. His conflict with Roosevelt heightened when he led the miners in a series of strikes at the height of World War II in 1943. He continued his confrontational methods after the war, and strikes in the face of a federal injunction in 1946 resulted in massive fines for the union. In the 1950s, Lewis collaborated more with mine owners in return for pension and health care programs for the miners. After his retirement in 1960, he was director of the union retirement and welfare funds and some of his decisions with regard to investments were detrimental to the funds’ viability!!!

Historical Dictionary of the Roosevelt–Truman Era . . 2015.

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