John Llewellyn Lewis was born in a coal mining company town just east of Lucas, Iowa on 12 February 1880. His parents, Thomas H. Lewis and Ann Watkins Lewis, had both immigrated to the USA from Llangurig, Wales and his father was a respected coal miner in the community. Lewis would follow in the family footsteps and mine coal, but he would also become one of the most famous union organizers in the country.
Both my grandfathers were coal miners in Appalachia, specifically in Eastern Kentucky, and although one of them was told labor organizations were ‘communist’ and would never join, the other one was a good union man. John L. Lewis was president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) from 1920 to 1960, and my father, like many sons born into mining families in those years, was named Lewis.
Needless to say, I am a huge fan of John L. Lewis. He fought like the devil (or like he was Welsh) against capitalist oppression and economic serfdom, and it was thanks to his efforts that unionized mining became a safer, better paid job that allowed a miner to live a comfortable – if not wealthy – life. Before unions, miners could barely scratch together enough to keep their families fed, and still wound up owing the company store their souls. Naturally enough, Lewis was loved by the miners and hated with a purple passion by the people who lost some of their profits when forced to pay labor a fair wage. To the wealthy Lewis was nothing but a troublemaker.
Lewis was a political liberal, and therefore a Republican in the 1920s. President Calvin Coolidge and Secretary of Commerce (and later POTUS) Herbert Hoover supported Lewis’s ideas for raising wages for miners, and actually offered the post of Secretary of Labor. Thinking he could do more good in the UMW, Lewis turned Coolidge down. Although he supported Hoover in the 1928 presidential election, Lewis and Hoover disagreed over Hoover’s response to the Great Depression and the coal mine strikes 1930-1931. While Lewis was still friends with Hoover, and publically supported him in the 1932 elections, he let the Democratic candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, know he was ready and able to assist in implementing labor reforms.
With FDR pushing the New Deal, Lewis was appointed a member of the Labor Advisory Board and the National Labor Board of the National Recovery Administration in 1933. Lewis used his position to raise wages and increase safety in the mines, but he often made himself unpopular by bullying anyone who stood between himself and the goal of a better work environment for the miners. Coal mine owners, and the other mega-wealthy of the time, already hated Lewis as much as they loathed FDR. Frankly, I think the Fat Cats would have had Lewis shot if the fascist plot to overthrow FDR had actually succeeded.
Although he wasn’t always ‘nice’ about it, Lewis was hella smart, and used legislation to craft miner protections and then used the law to enforce the new rules. “He secured the passage of the Guffey Coal Act in 1935 and then the Guffey-Vinson Act in 1937 when the 1935 act was declared by the US Supreme Court to be unconstitutional, both of them favorable to miners.”
When local owners and authorities tried to buck the system and continue to short-changed and endanger miners, Lewis used strikes as a method of forcing capital to the table to negotiate with the workers. This was hard as hell to do, especially in the coal fields of Appalachia, where gun thugs routinely killed striking miners and unionists.
One of my favorite stories that my unionist grandfather would tell is how, during the coal mine strikes of the 1930s – known as the Harlan County War — he and the other striking coal miners would throw ‘scabs’ (union breakers) into a creek when then tried to pass over the picket lines. The union men would tell the strike breakers that they had been “Baptized in the name of John L. Lewis.” That image, a battle without the guns that killed both miners and strike-breakers in that bleak decade, has always tickled me pink.
There was little else in that era to be amused by in my grandfather’s reminisces. He had many more stories of men crushed to death, murdered by strike-breaking ‘law men’, or blacklisted until their families faced starvation, than he did humorous stories of throwing scabs into cold mountain streams. My grandfather once face machine guns aimed at him by members of the Kentucky National Guard for the ‘crime’ of wanting a living wage. That sort of thing makes one really, REALLY think about the socioeconomic narrative.
Tragically, narratives are easily overwritten by cultural constructions, even in the lifetime of those who lived through events that culture now wants to elide. The suffering of the miners and the works of John L. Lewis were eclipsed by the conflation of labor with ‘socialism’ and liberals with Godlessness. Marching to the drumbeat of God, Guns, and Gays, the US working class – including the coal miners of Appalachia – now routinely votes against their own economic interests in the hopes of maintaining ‘traditional values’. And by traditional values, I mean embedded, bone-deep, ethnocentrism.
The cultural putsch to the right has ensured there isn’t a single unionized mine left operating in Harlan County. Heaven forfend that you be seen as a liberal sympathizer in Eastern Kentucky! It would seem as though the laboring masses can be best beaten by convincing them to defeat themselves for an ideology that will never wholly be for their benefit. It’s depressing. It really is.
If anyone asks my dad – son of a union leader who became a GOP stalwart under Ronald Regan – about his name, they are told that he was named Lewis after a maternal uncle. This is, of course, the truth. There is no need to mention that uncle was almost certainly named in honor of union leader John L. Lewis. No one wants to be named, even once removed, for the man who fought so vehemently for the rights of those who dug deep under the mountains of that region. He was, after all, one of THOSE people – a liberal.
I, however, remain an avowed union-loving, bleeding-heart, tree-hugging, bra-burning, liberal and as such I remember John Llwellyn Lewis fondly. Was he perfect? Nope. He was human. But he was a human who battled non-stop to provided succor and justice for his fellow man. To me that is a very worthy goal, and a sign of profound integrity.