John L. Lewis - History of Business in the U.S.Identification: American labor leader
Born: February 12, 1880; Lucas, Iowa
Died: June 11, 1969; Alexandria, Virginia
Significance: Through his persistent work and vision as a labor union leader, Lewis helped shape the modern American labor union and boost the financial standing of the average American worker.
During his younger years, John L. Lewis worked as a coal miner, farmer, construction worker, and smallbusiness entrepreneur. He became involved in the labor movement in 1906 and helped organize the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1911. In 1920, he was elected president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), the largest trade union in the United States.
As unemployment grew in the United States during the 1930’s, membership in the UMWA dropped from 500,000 to less than 100,000. Lewis helped form the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO; later Congress of Industrial Organizations) in 1935. When he was elected president of the CIO in 1937, it had more members than the AFL. During the 1940’s, Lewis led a series of strikes that produced increased wages for mine workers. Membership in the UMWA grew to over 500,000. Lewis served as president of the UMWA until 1960.
John L. Lewis. (Library of Congress)
Lewis stood up against business tycoons and was insistent that every worker in the United States, including those in menial factory jobs, should have a middle-class existence.Hefought vigorously and aggressively against the antilabor Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. He regularly advised the president of the United States and challenged America’s corporate leaders. Through his influence, unfair labor practices diminished, wages continued to increase, health benefits and retirement plans were established and enhanced, and work safety regulations were passed. The standard of living of millions of American workers was raised because of his persistent work on their behalf.
Alvin K. Benson
Dubofsky, Melwyn, and Warren Van Tine. John L. Lewis: A Biography. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
Kurland, Gerald. John L. Lewis: Labor’s Strong-Willed Organizer. Charlotteville, N.Y.: SamHar Press, 1973.
See also: American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO); labor history; labor strikes; World War II.