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The essential study of a longtime labor leader

John L. Lewis: A Biography - Warren Van Tine, Melvyn Dubofsky

Given the erosion of organized labor in America today, it can be difficult to conceive that there was a time when labor leaders were national figures who exerted considerable economic and political influence. Perhaps the best example of this was John L. Lewis. As president of the United Mine Workers (UMW) for four decades, he led a union which played a critical role in the American economy, while his differences with the American Federation of Labor led him to disaffiliate from the body and create the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) instead, which played a leading role in organizing industrial unions in the late 1930s. Such was his stature that at his height people spoke of him as a potential president of the United States.

Such a figure deserves a well-researched and penetrating biography, which is what Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren Van Tine have provided. Theirs is a rigorous account of Lewis's life, beginning with his early life in Iowa, through his initial work as a labor organizer, to his ascent to the presidency of the UMW in 1920 and his long struggles on behalf of his workers. Lewis became president of a union at a time when many workers were drawn to the appeal of socialism and communism. Lewis asserted his control of the union to suppress radicals, cementing his position over the course of the 1920s. While his dictatorial approach engendered criticism from other UMW leaders, by the end of the decade his dominance of the union was complete.

Yet Lewis's personal triumph contrasted sharply with the state of his union.  Despite the modest successes they enjoyed early in his tenure, the UMW was declining well before the Great Depression inflicted even greater poverty on thousands of miners. Yet President Franklin Roosevelt's administration gave unionization efforts a new life. A committed Republican, Lewis nonetheless supported Roosevelt's early New Deal, and sought to make the most of the opportunity provided by the administration to strengthen organized labor in the country. As the authors demonstrate, Lewis's efforts contributed greatly to the organization of workers in the steel and automobile industries during this period, though in the end Lewis found himself unable to work harmoniously with his counterparts in the CIO and he broke with the organization over the CIO's support for Roosevelt's bid for a third term as president.

Lewis spent the remaining two decades of his presidency denouncing the federal government's presence in labor relations and continuing his fight for the members of his union. Even after his retirement in 1960 he enjoyed an enormous degree respect from the UMW's rank-and-file members until his death, as well as a legendary reputation afterward. Reading Dubofsky and Van Tine's book give readers an appreciation as to how he earned it. Their detailed study recounts the numerous battles he fought on the behalf of his members to a degree that can be exhausting but which together provide a thorough understanding of his actions as their leader. By the end of the book it is difficult not to be impressed with all that he accomplished, particularly given the broader problems facing the coal industry at the time (ones which provide a valuable context for many of the issues facing it today). Because of this, Dubofsky and Van Tine's book is essential reading for anyone seeking to learn about Lewis, his impact upon the country, and the history of the American coal industry — and, thanks to their labors, it is one unlikely to be bettered as a study of their subject.