Lewis was born on February 12, 1880, in Lucas County, Iowa, to Thomas Lewis and Ann Louisa Watkins. His father was a coal miner who lived in poorly constructed company housing from the time of Lewis's birth to the early 1890s. By the late 1890s, John Lewis was working in a local coal mine alongside other family members. In 1901, Lewis became a charter member of the new UMWA local that organized in the area where he worked and was elected its secretary. He eventually began working at a coal mine in Panama, Illinois, where he was elected president of UMWA Local 1475 in 1910. Within a year, he received an appointment as field representative for the American Federation of Labor (AFL), where he worked for six years for Samuel Gompers. In 1917, he became the UMWA's vice president and then president in 1920. At the time he became president, the UMWA had approximately 400,000 members. By the early 1930s, the union had lost roughly 80 percent of its membership.
With the ascent of Roosevelt to the presidency, Lewis seized the opportunity to reverse the UMWA's flagging fortunes. He worked with the administration in creating prolabor New Deal legislation, particularly the NIRA, which encouraged workers to unionize. The union subsequently sent large numbers of union organizers into the coalfields to rebuild the UMWA's membership. Lewis's efforts on the NLRA in 1935 allowed for the expansion of the union movement to mass-production industries, such as the automobile and steel industries. Although Lewis helped create opportunities for the expansion of unions, the AFL proved reticent to move aggressively to organize new unions. In response, Lewis helped create the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) in 1935. Although the CIO was initially associated with the AFL, Lewis determined that it should become a separate entity. In 1938, the organization changed its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations and became independent, with Lewis serving as its president. During this period, when he became the most powerful labor leader in the county, he consolidated his influence in the Roosevelt administration through the creation of labor's Nonpartisan League, which was used to funnel money to politicians who supported organized labor's political agenda. Although labor's Nonpartisan League was short-lived due to Lewis's political activities during World War II, it did mark the entry of the labor movement's money and votes into the nation's political arenas, an area where they have been very influential even to this day.
The onset of World War II changed the relationship between Lewis and the Roosevelt administration. Lewis justifiably feared that the militarization of the nation's economy would compromise the growth that the union movement had experienced during the New Deal. He began criticizing Roosevelt publicly, which resulted in Lewis's polarization from both the Roosevelt administration and other labor leaders who remained steadfast in their support of the president. This led Lewis to disassociate the UMWA from the CIO in 1942.
In 1942, Roosevelt's administration created the National War Labor Board to address the needs of organized labor in the war effort. All of the major labor unions in the country, including the UMWA, had pledged to the Roosevelt administration that in exchange for his attention to their respective issues and challenges that they would not strike during the war. The UMWA broke the pledge in 1943 on three different occasions. Congress responded with the passage of the Smith-Connally Act, which marked the first time in the twentieth century that the U.S. Congress had passed legislation that harmed the labor movement. The UMWA continued to pursue its independent agenda, which led in 1947 to the passage of amendments to the NLRA that made it easier for employers to combat efforts by their employees to unionize.
Despite the obvious harm that Lewis had personally done to the organized labor movement nationally, he remained the president of the UMWA until 1960. After World War II, the coal industry began aggressively mechanizing, and it needed fewer workers. The UMWA, which had become very corrupt, began negotiating contracts that provided improved benefits and pay for workers in exchange for allowing coal companies to significantly reduce the labor force. These contracts proved very profitable for UMWA officials at the expense of the coal miners. Lewis died in Washington, DC, on June 11, 1969.
John Russell Burch Jr.
See also: American Federation of Labor (AFL) ; New Deal ; Nonpartisan League (NPL) ; Roosevelt, Franklin Delano (1882–1945)
Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Warren Van Tine. John L. Lewis: A Biography. New York: Quadrangle, 1977.
Zieger, Robert H. The CIO, 1935–1955. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Zieger, Robert H. John L. Lewis: Labor Leader. Boston: Twayne, 1988.