The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Lewis, John Llewellyn
(February 12, 1880–June 11, 1969)

–20th-century American labor leader—was born in Cleveland, Iowa, the son of Welsh immigrant parents, Thomas A. and Ann Louisa (Watkins) Lewis. He was the first of eight children who survived infancy. His mother was likely a Mormon, although Lewis as an adult showed little interest in religion. His father was a coal miner and a Knights of Labor loyalist.

    Cleveland, together with the larger town of Lucas a mile to the west, was in 1880 a coal mining community, one of many that flourished from about 1875 to 1920 in an area radiating about 50 miles south and east from Des Moines. In 1882 Thomas Lewis's family began to move from one Iowa coal town to another. There had been a strike in Lucas, and he likely was blacklisted. During the mid 1890s, the family lived in Des Moines, where John finished elementary school and three years of high school.

    In 1897 the family returned to Lucas, where John worked as a miner and farm laborer, served as secretary of the new local of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) based in Chariton, joined the Masons, and performed in amateur theatricals at the Lucas opera house. From 1901 to 1905 he traveled and worked in the Mountain West.

    The years 1905-1907 seemed to presage a life of small-town striving. He returned to Lucas, reentered the mines, renewed his active role in the UMWA, again joined in amateur theatricals, and co-leased and managed the opera house for a year. He rose to office in the Masons, ventured into a grain and feed business partnership, and became active in local politics. On June 5, 1907, he married Myrta Edith Bell, the daughter of a Lucas physician. They had three children–Mary Margaret (b. 1910), Kathryn (b. 1911), and John Jr. (b. 1918). From a locally prominent family, Myrta had completed high school, attended summer sessions at Drake University, and taught school for seven years. She seems not to have been the mentor to John alleged by Lewis's early biographers, but she was a steadying influence until her death in 1942.

    In spring 1908 there came another break from Lucas and Iowa, this one permanent except for occasional family visits. John and Myrta left for the burgeoning coal fields of Illinois, settling in the town of Panama, where they were soon joined by his parents, five brothers, and two sisters. Better employment prospects doubtless fueled the decision, as did the failure of both Lewis's grain and feed business and his bid for the Lucas mayoralty. And clearly Lewis now harbored ambitions for climbing the UMWA leadership hierarchy. Illinois provided a much better base for that purpose thandid Iowa.

    Lewis had spent more than 23 of his first 28 years in Iowa. Iowa had been formative. There he had gained a better than average education for a working-class youth of his day, and there he first entered the mines and became active in the UMWA. His Iowa theatrical experience would later abet his natural gifts as a labor orator. Broad-framed, deep-voiced, with sharp eyes, impressive eyebrows, and wavy, abundant hair, he would soon become a master of timing, the caustic phrase, and biblical and Shakespearean allusions. Finally–and, though negative, important in view of the young Lewis's vocational equivocation–his Iowa experience channeled him toward his calling as a labor leader by process of eliminating other options.

    Within a year, Lewis was president of the large Panama local. He soon also became the UMWA's legislative agent in Springfield. From 1911 to 1917 he served as field representative for the American Federation of Labor (AFL), traveling widely but keeping close ties with key UMWA leaders, including President John P. White (he, too, had lived part of his youth in Lucas). In 1917 Lewis became the UMWA's statistician, and later that year he replaced Frank Hayes as vice president. Hayes, plagued by ill health, had assumed the UMWA presidency when White resigned to accept a federal post. Lewis was soon the de facto president of a union that was the AFL's largest, with a membership that had swelled during wartime to some 400,000. In 1920 Hayes resigned, and Lewis was elected UMWA president.

    UMWA membership, along with union membership in general, declined rapidly during the 1920s and disastrously during the Depression years 1930-1933. But the remainder of the 1930s brought Lewis's great triumphs. He was one of only a few union leaders to recognize, and by far the best positioned to seize, the opportunities posed by the Roosevelt administration's relative friendliness toward the labor movement and the new protection that New Deal legislation offered to workers trying to form unions.

    First, Lewis bet the UMWA's treasury on a mass organizing campaign among coal miners. It succeeded spectacularly. Then, sensing a widespread desire for unionization among industrial workers and brushing aside AFL leaders' wish for limited organizing along narrow "craft" lines, he launched huge organizing campaigns in the mass production industries. His vehicle was the Committee for Industrial Organization, formed in 1935 and reconstituted in 1938, upon its formal split from the AFL, as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The CIO was Lewis's creature. A few leaders of other AFL unions joined him in forming it, but about 70 percent of the CIO's organizing resources came from Lewis's UMWA. Again the success was spectacular. Total union membership leaped from less than 3 million in 1932 to some 7.5 million in 1939 and to 13.4 million in 1945. Nor was organized labor's new power confined to the workplace. For the first time, labor jumped wholeheartedly into electoral politics. The CIO under Lewis contributed mightily to the Roosevelt landslide of 1936. Later Democratic victories were in large part due to CIO efforts, along with the AFL's and, after the 1955 merger, those of the AFL-CIO.

    Beginning with his opposition to Roosevelt's reelection in 1940, Lewis's willfulness did not serve the labor movement so well. When Roosevelt won a solid electoral victory, with the support of most unions and most union members, Lewis resigned as CIO president. In 1942 he led the UMWA out of the CIO, and in 1943 his UMWA conducted wartime strikes that, in the eyes of many, impugned the patriotism of the entire labor movement. Until his retirement in 1960 he continued to win gains for UMWA coal miners, but their numbers were dwindling as their industry declined.

    The UMWA under Lewis was always an undemocratic organization, with proclivities for violence and financial chicanery. By the time of Lewis's death in Washington, D.C., on June 11, 1969, the UMWA was thoroughly decayed. In 1973 his one-time lieutenant and eventual successor as UMWA president, W. A. "Tony" Boyle, was convicted of having ordered the infamous December 1969 murder of dissident union leader Joseph Yablonski and his wife and daughter.

    Yet in any assessment, Lewis's shortcomings must be balanced against his huge achievements. Lewis, more than any other person save Roosevelt, was responsible for two long-prevailing features of 20th-century American life. One was the rise of millions of industrial workers into the middle class. The other was labor's emergence as the lynchpin of the Roosevelt coalition, the core of a Democratic Party that sustained the generally centrist-liberal, reformist national politics and federal policies of the middle third of the century. As a result, he is viewed by many as the preeminent American labor leader of the 20th century.
Sources The two authoritative biographies are Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren Van Tine, John L. Lewis: A Biography (1977), and the shorter Robert H. Zieger, John L. Lewis, Labor Leader (1988). The latter is especially valuable for its bibliographical essay, which, among other things, outlines the scattered state of primary sources concerning Lewis and cites several works concerning Lewis's elusive Iowa years-works that are doubtless largely accurate, though based on not wholly reliable sources. The latest and best of such works is Ron E. Roberts, "Roots of Labor's Demiurge: Iowa's John L. Lewis," Journal of the West 35 (1996), 10–18. Dorothy Schwieder, Black Diamonds: Life and Work in Iowa's Coal Mining Communities, 1895–1925 (1983), examines the society in which Lewis grew up.
Contributor: John N. Schacht