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John L. Lewis Defies Truman

Even the Communists called John L. Lewis un-American when he led coal strikes during the war. The man with the fedora, cane, shiny shoes, cigar, and bushy-browed scowl struck fear into presidents and children ˝ whom, one historian has written, were told by their parents: "You'd better be good, or John L. Lewis will get you."

The AF of L and the CIO ˝ which Lewis began ˝ had pledged not to strike during the war, so when Lewis led the 1943 strike of 500,000 coal miners, their leaders feared he was risking labor's reputation. They had made a No Strike Pledge in 1942 that was to last for the duration of the war.

But to Lewis this would make labor a slave to FDR's military policies; he drafted a plan for cooperation between government and labor. But it was unpopular, and throughout the war he became silent. He did not want to be accused of being unpatriotic.

Pre-PH: Opposition to getting involved overseas. Saw war as the tool of avaricious industrialists. Charges of disloyalty. But wanted a progressive coalition to complete the unfinished work of the New Deal. Attacked FDR for slighting labor and embracing conservatives. Though FDR was popular among workers, said Lewis, he wasn't enough of a friend to them. Said Hitler and the Japanese were loathesome, but that they were no threat to us. "Europe is on the brink of disaster and it must be our care that she does not drag us into the abyss after her," he said. 1941 - calls for militant action. Captive mines dispute. Oct 27 41. Pres. Lewis rejects FDR's mediation, calls strike in "captive mines" 11/16/41 5 million CIO members pledge solidarity with Lewis and captive mine strikers 11/22/42 lewis ends coal strike, submits dispute to arbitration march 26, '42Ícongerss gets labor's vow to ban all strikes while war is on 6/19 60,000 cease work in coal mines as union, mgt deliberaet 6/22 John L. Lewis calls off coal strike until Oct. 31 if Govt. keeps control of mines. 11/2 Ickes grants Lewis $1.50 a day rise in pay 12/27 army seizes rr's april 44Ítroops seize ward for rejecting fdr order to extend union contract Labor demand ˝ 1000s of miners went to war. Critics of Lewis suggested he might contest FDR for the presidency. When Germany attacked Russia, the Communists ˝ formerly pacifists -- turned on him for being anti-military. 1943 - Defying Roosevelt, Lewis led a strike of half a million coal miners. Earned the venom of the public. Despite all the bad press, he was able to get wage increases for the workers. Even the Communists said he was America's greatest enemy. Mainstream labor said he made labor look anti-American. Meanwhile, thousands of factory workers looked to Lewis' strike as an inspiration. But as historian Robert H. Zieger observes in John L. Lewis, he didn't create the discontent of his workers, but took a cue from their unhappiness. He also fought to keep his union in line, suppressing "wildcat strikes" and contract violations. 1948 ˝ he was fined $20,000 for continuing the UMW strike in defiane of a federal injunction. Welsh origins. Worked at a coal mine in late 1901 making 60 cents per ton of coal mined. A big man. Rags to riches. Lewis was the greatest of the labor leaders who came to prominence in the 1930s and the 1940s. Working people loved or hated him. His appeal: "native son" from Iowa cornfields. warnings about militarization of American society Criticized for his betraying America egotistical and hungry for wealth. condescension towards workers despotic control of the UMW isolationism There were few greater foes of corporate Ameria. Five years working in mines. At 29 he was president of the United Mine Workers. Patronage from the UMW and AFL elite had helped him achieve this office.
 







"John L. Lewis is, and always has been, a reptillian, treasonous son of a bitch."
-- poet Carl Sandburg to Saul Alinsky, August, 1940.

"John L. Lewis may be a devil to the poets, but he is an angel to the workers ˝ possibly, Mr. Sandburg, their avenging angel. You say John L. Lewis is ruthlessÍbut he has fought all of his life against the most ruthless and destructive forces known to our alleged civilization."
-- Saul Alinsky