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John L. Lewis, Part 2
Brian Trumbore

As we wrap up our story on the United Mine Workers and labor leader John L. Lewis, it's the 1930s and Lewis is feeling his oats as some of the pro-Labor reforms that FDR had instituted aided the UMW (and other unions) in pumping up their membership. Wage concessions and gains in working conditions were achieved across the board in the following years.

But in the late 1930s, as word of Hitler's maneuverings began to dominate political thought in the U.S., Lewis, himself, developed a reputation as a passionate isolationist. The media began to demonize him as a dictator and a Nazi. Certainly, UMW work stoppages in May 1939 and the fall of 1941 didn't help his image. In '41, Lewis called a nationwide strike, but, amid potential wintertime shortages and a denunciation of him as a traitor, the miners went back to work…December 7, 1941.

So now the nation is at war and in the spring of 1943, Lewis decided to lead the coal miners out once again. This time, the vast majority of folks around the country were livid. Newspapers condemned the action as another traitorous act. Said an air force pilot in one interview, "I'd just as soon shoot down one of those strikers as shoot down Japs - they're doing just as much to lose the war for us." Lewis became the most unpopular man in the nation, with 87% of the people holding an "unfavorable" opinion.

As a result of the '43 strike, Congress passed the Smith-Connolly War Labor Disputes Act, which authorized the government to seize plants useful to the war effort and prohibited unions from making political contributions. [In 1944 Arkansas and Florida set in motion a number of "right to work" initiatives that outlawed the "closed shop" (the ability of the unions to demand that all employees be members).]

While Lewis's actions once again led to wage concessions for the UMW, the loss of public support in organized labor would not be easily overcome.

But in the spring of 1946, no longer hampered by wartime no- strike laws, organized labor began to flex their muscles again. Lewis's UMW struck the coal mines in March, and, since the nation had yet to build back up following the war, factories quickly became inoperative and lights were dimmed across the land. Just as importantly, the strike also threatened recovery in Europe. Lewis may have thought that President Truman would cave to the demands but he guessed wrong. A young aide to Truman at the time, Clark Clifford, said, "Mr. President, you have to take him on!" Truman replied, "It's a fight to the finish."

On May 21, Truman authorized the seizure of the mines by federal troops in order to prove his point. However, the president quickly appointed the interior secretary to accept nearly all of the union's demands, including an 18.5 cents per-hour wage increase as well as improved safety regulations and pension funds. Of course now the mine operators, who had no real say in the negotiations, were upset!

But by October 1946, John L. Lewis was involved in a power struggle with other labor leaders. Lewis felt as if he had to do something to prove that he was Labor's ultimate force, and, with his huge ego working overtime, he decided to back off on the May deal.

Seizing on a minor loophole in the agreement, Lewis demanded that the UMW's contract be reopened. It was on the eve of the mid-term elections and, of course, Lewis knew his timing was perfect for extracting further gains. But Truman refused to do so and Lewis then announced that the miners would consider the contract null and void on November 20.

Truman was not a happy camper and sought an injunction barring a strike, which was granted on November 18. When Lewis attempted to see Truman, the president refused to do so. "The White House is open to anybody with legitimate business, but not to that son of a bitch," said Harry. Meanwhile, Lewis had hired an ex-FBI agent to dig up dirt on the judge responsible for the edict. Finding nothing, Lewis ordered the strike anyway and on December 3 the UMW was fined $3.5 million (later reduced to $700,000), and Lewis, personally, $10,000.

With the two sides at loggerheads, Truman announced he was going on national radio to make an appeal to the miners. Lewis, fearing that this time he'd end up on the losing end, ordered the UMW back to work. As author Harold Evans notes, "He had met his match. His hell-raising days were all but over."

In 1955 the AFL and CIO merged. While the joint membership was some 17 million, just one-fourth of the entire labor force, it still accounted for half of the "blue collar" workers. By then, Labor had generally secured substantial gains over the previous two decades with a 40-hour week, vacations with pay, and healthcare and pension benefits becoming the norm. Lewis was largely responsible for enactment of the latter, as he got coal operators to set aside a "royalty" of $100 a month for a miner's pension fund, a benefit quickly adopted by most other industries. For this alone, John L. Lewis deserves to be noted, because the modern pension system led to a more stabilized work force.

But while Lewis retired in 1960 (at age 80), the UMW remained in the spotlight. On January 5, 1970, union dissident Joseph Yablonski was murdered along with his wife and daughter. Yablonski had been an unsuccessful candidate for UMW president and he had attempted to expose the corruption within the organization. The 1969 campaign, which elected "Tony" Boyle, had been declared void because union funds and facilities had been used in Boyle's bid for office.

In 1971, Boyle was found guilty of ordering the murders and the following year Paul Gilly was sentenced to death for carrying it out. [Gilly's wife had pled guilty to the conspiracy and implicated Boyle in the crime.]

So on that cheery note, we have finally come to a conclusion in the history of the United Mine Workers.

For the next three weeks I am going to update some market statistics.

Sources: Same as last week.

Brian Trumbore

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