Book Review: Dubofsky, Melvin and Warren Van Tine, “John L. Lewis, a Biography.” Quadrangle, the NY Times Book Co., NY, 1977.
If one is interested in the American labor movement 1919-1959, then one needs to know about John L. Lewis. This is a thorough version of 529 big pages in 8-point type! The authors paint a consistent picture of a history-maker who was an autocrat, an egomaniac, and a shifty manipulator who achieved a certain amount of relatively undeserved success. It’s well documented and presented in a balanced way, so I wouldn’t challenge its veracity, but only its conclusion.
John L. Lewis was a union man. The authors point out that he could easily have made more money if he had left the labor movement and joined his many capitalist friends. They do not explain why he didn’t, but I will: he was a union man. Union men care about others. They may, and apparently Lewis did, use all sorts of questionable strategies to serve their union members; but their goal is to make things better. I challenge anyone to say that John L. Lewis failed in that noble effort!
Lewis started the CIO and guided it to its great success. He was lionized everywhere for it and was one of the greatest heroes of the period 1935-1939. Afterward, he opposed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he opposed entry to World War II, he encouraged a big coal strike during World War II, he opposed President Harry Truman; and he allowed himself to be made one of the most despised public figures in America afterward. Loved or hated, nobody disputes his outsize role in history.
The authors chose hang their narrative on the biennial mineworkers contract negotiations. Many times, walkouts were involved. Lewis was a master strategist who knew how to manipulate the mine owners, his enemies within the union, government supervisors, and whoever else was involved. Because of economic realities, every contract was not a great victory, but many of them were, and much of those victories came about because Lewis was really good at what he did. But it wasn’t mine worker contracts that drew me to the life of Lewis. It was the dramatic change he made in the American labor movement. Lewis implemented industrial unionism when he formed the Committee for Industrial Organizing, known later as the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Before 1935, the “official” labor movement was characterized by craft unions. They avoided organizing women or people of color. They sought out the elite workers, the ones with irreplaceable skills such as electricians or machinists. Someone who pushed a broom had no chance to get the benefits of labor organization. At the same time, certain progressives tried to implement industrial organizing targeting everybody who worked. The IWW is often mis-called “International Workers,” but their real name was “Industrial Workers of the World.” They tried to organize everybody and were so successful at it that the government arrested, deported, and killed enough of them to hold them back.
After that, the communists tried to infiltrate the AFL with newly-organized industrial workers and industrial ideas. They wanted all unions to be like the United Mine Workers, who organized everybody that worked in their industry. John L. Lewis, head of the mine workers, agreed with them and decided, in 1935, that he could get the AFL to accept it. The 1935 AFL convention, and Lewis’ role, makes a great story. When it was over, industrial unionism had a firm beginning at last and American labor was never the same again.
AFL leaders during the period accused Lewis of splitting the labor movement, but this book makes it clear that John L. Lewis did not precipitate a split and that he spent the his career trying to re-unite the movement. In 1955, they did re-unite to form the AFL-CIO. Unfortunately, the twists and turns of history had left the UMW out of the AFL, the CIO, and the AFL-CIO. None of that was Lewis’ fault.
The book is not a grand view of all labor developments. The IWW is barely mentioned. The communists, who did a great deal of the organizing, are only mentioned when they were being excoriated by Lewis or other people. Nevertheless, I learned a great deal that I hadn’t known before. Here are notes I took as I read the life of John L Lewis:
I was surprised to read that the United Mine Workers were demanding a 6-hour day and 5-day week way back in 1919! Also, they demanded that coal mining be nationalized. Lewis joined in the slogans, but not the implementation. I’m up to page 134, and the authors paint him as a gross opportunist.
Lewis rose through the ranks because he cultivated relationships, not because of some meteoric personality. One of the people he cultivated was 40-year AFL leader Samuel Gompers. Another was head of the Harriman bank. After he got the presidency, he beat down the militant miners. He used red-baiting generously. Some of his supporters beat up his opponents.
The government called out airplanes against the miners in the Battle of Blair mountain in August 1921.
Page 82: “On April 1, 1922, he thus led the largest single coal miners’ strike in United States history.”
June 21, 1922, there was a massacre of scabs in Herrin County, Illinois. After winning an armed battle with strikebreakers and guards, miners took them prisoners. As they drove their prisoners along, they got carried away and murdered 19 of them. “The Herrin Massacre.” Lewis blamed it all on communists.
William Z Foster and his Trade Union Education League targeted the UMW because it was the largest of all American unions and because it was organized industrially. Lewis used the occasion to slather his enemies with red paint and destroy them all. After 1926 or so, Lewis was unchallenged within the union. But through his ascent, the union was in descent. In fact, the authors say that Lewis was able to overcome various District Directors because they were losing so many members and, thus, so much clout. The union apparently dropped from 500K members to 100K. They only won the 1922 strike with a $2M loan from the Harriman Bank.
As Lewis reigned supreme, the union was nearly finished.
Even in 1932, Lewis supported his poker playing buddy, Herbert Hoover, for President. FDR took office March 1933. Even before that, John L Lewis was touting the outline for the New Deal. At AFL-CiO conventions beginning in 1933, he spoke up for industrial organizing. Even before that, he wanted to increase the Exec from 8 to 25 in order to represent more of the union movement. Along about page 190, John L starts being the good guy in this narrative. Befrore that, one might claim that his great accomplishment was keeping the union together through hard times, if one were generous. These authors aren’t.
Lewis had a great lifelong friend in Herbert Hoover. According to the authors, he prized his friendships among the high and mighty, be they capitalists or not, much more than other unionists or the common people.
Pg147: In 1921, UMW had 500K. In 1928, 80K.
Pg 148: Campaigned for Hoover
Pg165: Mother Jones opposed Lewis
Pg167: “Third period” reds were a problem
Pg178: At 1932 AFL Convention, Lewis urged the formation of the United Electrical Workers. He presaged the New Deal
Pg 174: Economist and reformer W. Jett Lauck worked with Lewis for decades. Wrote most of his speeches
Pg 183: The New Deal, Lewis said, was a way to avoid communism. He blasts communists all through his career
Pg 192 “Captive mines” were owned by steel companies. They refused national agreement under Section 7A of NIRA. Some historians claim that Lewis only wanted to form the CIO so that he could organize the captive mines. Clearly, it isn’t true because he went to great lengths to help the United Auto Workers form and win their big action against General Motors.
Pg 201: Opposed women’s auxiliary for UMW
Pg 205: 12% of the American workforce was organized in 1935. That was less than in 1922
Pg 276: GM settlement caused U.S. Steel contract. Lewis did not call nor control the sit-downers at Flint. He dealt with Michigan Governor Murphy and FDR
Pg 277: “What the AFL had failed to accomplish in half a century, the CIO had accomplished in three weeks.”
Pg 278: By the end of August, 1937, the CIO had 3,419,600 members, which was more than the AFL had.
Pg 306: 12-21-37 failure of unity conference\
Pg 307: AFL chartered dual unions, red baited, and linked with Chamber of Commerce to change the Wagner Act to disallow industrial unions. They undermined the New Deal, too.
Pg 307: Nov 1938–CIO is separate. Dubinsky pulled the ILGWU out of the CIO and went back to the AFL. CIA stooge Jay Lovestone was Dubinsky’s adviser.
Pg 314: FDR and New Dealers sold out Steel Workers Organizing Committee even after the Memorial Day 1937 massacre. August 1937 began “Roosevelt Depression.” Lewis criticized FDR and began the break that festered from then on
Pg 319: 1-25-39 Homer Martin resigned from Presidency of the UAW and took his own version of the union into the AFL
Pg 344: Lewis used his oratorial skill to destroy his enemies. He used the word “hottentot” to make his enemies sound like barbarians, savages, or cannibals
Pg 350: Spoke to NAACP and was for full rights for African Americans
Pg 351: Hoover 1940
Pg 351: Puissant is a word the authors use to mean “overly powerful.” FDR was becoming a puissant president, Lewis thought
Pg 358: He endorsed Wendell Wilkie for President in 1939 and swore to resign from the CIO if unions did not follow him. They didn’t and he did.
Pg 369: Phil Murray, anti-communist like Lewis, was elected to lead the CIO. During the war, Lewis tried to rejoin the AFL. In fact, he continued efforts to re-unite the labor movement to the end of his career. The authors blame him for some of the problems, but they record that he did try over and over again.
Pg 457: Jan 24, 1946, UMW re-admitted to AFL
Pg 458: Strike wave of 1946: “In November, 1945, two hundred thousand General Motors employees walked out of their plants. Two months later, 300,000 meat packers and 180,000 electrical workers struck, and were followed shortly thereafter by 750,000 steelworkers. In all, 4,630 work stoppages, involving 5,000,000 strikers, and totaling 12,000,000 idle work-days occurred in the twelve months following Japan’s surrender. While little physical violence characterized these stoppages, they generated violent emotions as middle- and upper-class Americans feared that unions would disrupt their economic security.” After the strike wave, Americans were bitter toward organized labor. This may help explain what happened in 1947.
Pg 468: Truman defeats Lewis in 1946 contract negotiations. Lewis had demanded mine safety.
Pg 474: Centralia mine explosion kills 111. Lewis uses it to push for mine safety
Pg 473: Taft Harley passed June 23, 1947. Lewis fought it before and after (pg 474)
Pg 476: Lewis continued to oppose Taft-Hartley after many unions accommodated themselves to it. In 1953, Lewis also made statements against Wagner Act and said unions were better off without government intervention
Pg 492: He always sought unification
Pg 493: AFL-CIO united in 1955, but they excluded the UMW
Pg 501: “The Jones Boys” were union hoodlums who beat up scab miners. Sometimes the would stop work at a scab mine and line up all the workers, then force them to join. Apparently, Lewis countenanced this through his career, but the book only mentions it this once. This page is also the first mention of Tony Boyle. Boyle took over the UMW and ruled it until he was convicted of murdering Jock Mahoney, his opponent.
Pg 506: Describes Lewis’ banking empire, which began in the 1920s and was gigantic by the 1950s. By then, the coal industry had fallen so low that its great financial achievements began to erode away
Pg 513: For his legacy, Lewis did not ask for statues or honors so much. He chartered 10 hospitals in mining districts. Apparently, Lewis always voted Democrat as he aged.
Pg 528: Died June 11, 1969. Left no papers nor any clear explanation of his lifelong motivations
Pg 529: The book ends with Dec 30, 1969, when Yablonski and his family retired for the night. That’s when Tony Boyle had them killed