ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes




their share of the total income from coal sales tended to

decrease because of price increases, higher taxes, and the fact

that machinery increased the output per man.


John L. Lewis & Samuel Gompers (1922)                                                                           John L. Lewis



Labor’s Problem: Real Wages

John L. Lewis

By Carrol L. Thompson

Many conflicting factors enter into the labor-management relations of the coal industry.  Part of the problem is caused by the fact that more coal can be mixed than can be sold at present prices.  Coal has been losing part of its market to petroleum, natural gas, and hydro-electric power.  The industry is faced with two alternatives:  (1) Either a reduction in the price of coal in an attempt to regain lost markets and keep the miners fully employed, or (2) an increase in wages and when necessary prices, to continue to give the miners an income that would enable them to maintain their living standards.


On March 5, the coal operators and the United Mine Workers of America signed a new contract.  It provided for continued union control of its welfare and retirement fund.  It also provided for an increase in basic pay from $14.05 per day to $14.75, and an increase of payments to the welfare fund by the operators—from 20 to 30 cents per ton.

The most recent coal settlement, whether or not it satisfies the miners, will undoubtedly tend to increase the cost of coal and decrease its use.  Perhaps the United Mine Workers and John L. Lewis can not help this.  Like the miner’s of Mitchell’s day they have to do the best they can regardless of theory.

Defending the UnSkilled

Because in a real sense every man who works with his hands is a potential or actual competitor of every other man who works with his hands, labor’s struggles for an adequate living wage have led very obviously to organization in groups to fight for the wage and to prevent undercutting competition for jobs.

During the lifetime of Samuel Gompers, the relationship between the educated, skilled craftsman and the mass of unskilled and usually illiterate laborers was not clear as it has become since 1924.  With the machine at his right hand, however, the unskilled laborer from 1900 on began to threaten the privileged position of the craftsmen.  The maintenance of his position and a guarantee of high wage for skill became supremely important to Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor.  It remained for another group of labor leaders, including some who were born in the coal fields, to recognize the needs and desires of the unskilled.

In their preoccupation with a minimum living wage, neither John Mitchell for the miners nor Samuel Gompers for the craftsmen (see CURRENT HISTORY) was primarily concerned with a “fair” wage for labor in general.  The simple guarantee of a minimum living wage, however, vital as it is, is no guarantee at all that the miners, or the craftsmen, will get or did get their fair share of the price paid for coal when the coal they produce is sold on the open market.

Real Wages vs. Money Wages

Here we face the complex problem of real wages as differentiated from money wages.  In a time of high prices it is obvious to all of us that money wages and real wages are not identical.  A dollar today will not buy, in terms of food and shelter and clothing, what the same dollar bought in 1935.  Those who receive the seemingly high wages paid today do not forget that prices as well as wages have gone up, and that in many cases prices have risen faster and higher than wages.

Early labor leaders, John Mitchell among them, were so deeply concerned with the problem of bare subsistence wage that the problem of labor’s fair share hardly occupied them.  Mitchell, for example, wanted to improve intolerable conditions in the coal mines.  Not concerned with the possibility that money values might change, he assumed that wage increases would automatically improve living conditions for the miners.  His position, for the time he represented labor, was basically sound.  

Under Mitchell’s leadership, wages and working conditions were improved.  But the price of coal was continually forced upward as wages rose; thus the relative position of the miners changed very little.  In other words, their share of the total income from coal sales tended to decrease because of price increases, higher taxes, and the fact that machinery increased the output per man.

Samuel Gompers represented a different group—skilled craftsmen—and his concern was, like Mitchell’s, raising the pay rates and living standards of the men he represented.  Gompers began to grapple with two basic problems as he became interested in labor unionization and labor theory.  First, it was evident to him from childhood that machinery replaced men in the short run.  Ordinary observation convinced Gompers, at first, that when machines were introduced, skilled men were laid off.  Thus one of Gompers’ first interests was to protect the craftsman from machine displacement.  

(His experience in cigar-making also proved to him that the machine introduced unskilled labor as a competitor to the skilled man).  This is still basic to much trade union thinking.


Gompers himself realized that opposition to machinery might be futile and was at best only temporary.  Later, he began to think in terms of under-consumption as the cause of depressions.  His immediate reaction was that a constantly increasing wage rate would provide constantly increasing consumption.  Before World War I he assumed that monetary reform would help both production and consumption.  The war was, of course, financed by the Federal Reserve System.  New plants were built. Wages went up.  So did prices.  The living standards of all the employed improved. 

Gompers died before the crash of 1929 proved that a combination of the Federal Reserve Act and wage increases would not guarantee constant employment at constantly rising wages.

But no clear proof of the futility of feather-bedding was accepted and it still continues.  It unquestionably touches the relationship between productivity and pay and it is at the same time uneconomic and impractical on a large scale.  

Unskilled labor, in order words, cannot rely on restrictive techniques to limit the capitalist’s profits.

Contemporary labor leaders, John L. Lewis among them, have dramatically before their eyes the difference between real and money wages.  Wartime conditions in the coal fields, where prices in company stores shot sky-high, provided ample illustration of labor’s need to established real rather than money standards of value for services rendered.

It cannot be forgotten, however, that the shortest, easiest way to raise real wages in time of inflation is to demand large increases in money wages in an effort to “beat the rising prices.”  Partly because this is true, and partly because labor leaders, like most other Americans, tend to think in terms of money wages, there has been little concentration on the problem of real wages even during this inflationary period.  John L. Lewis has publicly declared himself in favor of high prices and high wages and, partly for personal reasons, has opposed price ceilings and price fixing wherever and whenever possible.  

Lewis has spent the larger part of his efforts securing higher money for the U.M.W., just as Mitchell did.  Unlike Mitchell, he saw clearly the competition that the unorganized laborer represents for the organized laborer, and he early became a very successful industrial organizer.  Today, there is an obvious and definite relationship between the wages of, for example, coal miners and the wages of steel workers.

*   *   *   *   *

John L. Lewis was born on February 12, 1880, in the coal mining community of Lucas, Iowa.  His father, Thomas Lewis, was a Welsh coal-miner-immigrant, recently arrived in the United States and an active member of the Knights of Labor.  Throughout John’s childhood, he lived in a typical mining community, surrounded by the resentments and tensions of the miners and their families.

John’s first experiences with mine operators were also typical.  Time and again his father was blacklisted for union activities, with consequent hardships to the Lewis family.  Of John’s childhood little else has been made public.  He went to the public schools of Lucas with his brothers and tales of Lewis’ early life imply that they were a cantankerous lot.

John disliked school and left it at the seventh grade.  To help support the family, he soon went into the coal mines with his father and his brother, Tom.  Now Lewis’ personality begin to emerge.  Of his quick mind there could be little doubt.  “When the Lord gave out brains to the Lewis children He gave most of them to John,” admitted his brother Denny later.  And John himself boasted of his physical strength “I come from a long line of stalwart progenitors who bequeathed me a rugged constitution.”

In his early twenties, Lewis wandered through Western mining towns, like other discontented miners before him, but in 1906 he returned to Lucas.  This was the year of his first union effort.  He was elected local delegate to the U.M.W. convention and, according to biographer James Wechsler, “From that moment the Lewis career began to suggest a master plan.”  He was now 26 years old, and recently married to Myra Edith Bell, an Iowa schoolteacher.

The union career of John L. Lewis is the career of an able politician.  When he moved from Lucas to Panama, Iowa, in 1909, he was elected president of the Panama local.  Less than a year later he became state legislative representative for the U.M.W.  Now his talent for public speaking could be appreciated.  In 1911, Samuel Gompers, heading the American Federation of Labor, named Lewis as a field representative.  Lewis held this post until 1917.  

He was learning about union politics, and about the difficulties of organizing industries other than coal.  While A.F.L. field representative, Lewis had his first experience with the steel workers and the corporation managers who fought the union.  Other organizing assignments were handed to him:  in the rubber, glass, lumber and copper industries.  None was particularly successful, partly because of the strict craft unionism practiced by Gompers and his followers.

During the same period, Lewis was rising in the U.M.W. itself.  In 1916 he had been appointed to the U.M.W.’s Interstate Scale Committee; at the convention that year he acted as chairman of some stormy sessions.  His appointment as chief statistician of the Union followed shortly.  By 1919, John L. Lewis was acting president of a union of more than 400,000 men.  

U.M.W. president John P. White had resigned to serve on the War Labor Board.  His successor, Frank J. Hayes was an affable, rather weak leader more interested in congeniality than in leading the union.  When he designated John as vice president, he in effect handed him the leading job.

John L. Lewis was now 40 years old, the youngest president of a big American union.  John Mitchell had been a young president before him.  He headed the national U.M.W. before his twenty-eighth birthday.  But the union had been weaker and smaller then, and Mitchell had worked his way through the ranks the hard way.  As president, Lewis was an illustration of the power of political maneuvering.  Almost every one of his rising series of offices had been appointive; only his first position as head of the Panama local was really an elective post.

*   *   *   *   *

Seeking the Presidency of AFL

The first big test of Lewis’ ability as a union leader came in September, 1919, after the close of World War I, when conflict between the union and the mine operators precipitated a widespread strike.  The U.M.W. convention of 1919 had demanded a sixty cent increase in pay, the five-day week, and the six-hour day.  The operators refused the demands and although the government declared it illegal in the light of the war-time Lever Act, the strike was begun.  

On December 3, 84 union officials were cited for contempt and Lewis was arrested; the strike ended with a White House-led compromise four days later.  “I will not fight my government, the greatest government on earth,” declared Lewis in 1919.  (In 1943, he changed his mind).  The strike settlement was not accepted by the miners with good grace.  Although the miners eventually received a pay increase of 27 per cent, the demand for a 30-hour week was not met.  Lewis’ unpopularity spread as the country experienced a post-war economic let-down.

Nonetheless, in 1921, Lewis dared to stand for election to the presidency of the A.F.L. against his old friend, Samuel Gompers.  This was a bad political error.  Lewis’ defeat was overwhelming—25,022 votes for Gompers and 12,324 for Lewis.  William Green had delivered the nominating address:

The candidate I am to present served as a boy in the mines, he learned the lesson of the mines, his education was given to him in this university, he learned to be courageous and unafraid as only a miner can learn these things. …  I say to you that if I possessed the eloquence of Demosthenes or the logic of a Lincoln I could not by anything I might say add a single whit to the qualifications he possesses.1

Defeat has never been easy for Lewis; yet he acknowledged his error humorously in 1921:

I feel somewhat like the young man who entered the ministry.  After a most difficult time his mother said to him one day:  “John, why did you enter the ministry?”  He said:  “Mother, I heard a call.”  The old lady pondered quite a while and finally said:  “John, are you sure it wasn’t some other noise you heard?”2

But although John tried to take the setback graciously, and declared that the U.M.W. men who opposed him “exercised the prerogative that all men have,” he worked at the next U.M.W. convention, to push through an amendment requiring the mine workers’ delegation to A.F.L. convention to vote as a solid bloc.

Consolidation of Leadership

For the next ten years Lewis worked to consolidate his power in the mining towns.  All reports indicate that his methods were ruthless, lawless, and dictatorial to a great degree.  As convention chairman, Lewis tolerate no criticism and critics were usually tossed from the hall before union business was begun.  To critics at the 1924 convention Lewis is said to have called out, typically:  “May the chair state that you may shout until you meet each other in hell and he will not change his ruling!”

During this period, Lewis rode roughshod over many leading union men who threatened his growing hold on the U.M.W.  Among those eliminated by the Lewis machine were capable John Brophy, Harvard graduate Powers Hapgood, and politician Frank Farrington.  Lewis began to make “provisional” appointments in districts hostile to him, replacing the elected officials with puppets of his own choice.  This new “provisionalism” became one of his most powerful weapons in organizing solid backing.  

By March, 1930, Lewis was making a salary of $12,000 a year.  He was able to put down a major inter-union rebellion and he saw that Brophy, Howat, and others of the opposition lost their union cards.

The early 1930’s saw Lewis developing a laissez faire philosophy of conservatism.  In 1925, he had written his only book:  The Miners’ Fight for American Standards.  Passages read like a G.O.P. party platform.

“The policy of the United Mine Workers of America … is neither new nor revolutionary,” wrote Lewis.  “It does not command the admiration of visionaries and Utopians.  It ought to have the support of every thinking businessman in the United States because it proposes to allow natural economic laws free play in the production and distribution of coal.

In the same book, Lewis made public his scorn for the academicians:

Let us admit at the outset that the coal industry was not conceived, planned, and blueprinted by scientific supermen or young critics just out of Harvard, who are fully equipped to tell us all the mistakes our granddads made. …  In time the industry, like others, was overdeveloped, and overproduction became chronic.  This overdevelopment and overproduction3 would have been checked, as in most other industries, if economic laws had been given free play. …


It seems that it is now up to the Labor Unions to compel capitalists to act like capitalists and to discharge the social functions of capitalists.

Never in Lewis’ long career has he looked at the union as anything but a bargaining tool.  “Trade unionism,” he wrote, “is a phenomenon of capitalism quite similar to the corporation.  One is essentially a pooling of the labor for purposes of common action in production and in sales.  The other is a pooling of capital for exactly the same purposes.  The economic aims of both are identical—gain.

Never, moreover, has he looked with any kindness on government intervention or interference in the conflicts between labor and capital.  Nonetheless, he was not above taking full advantage of the N.R.A.’s section 7-A, in 1933, to further his organization and recoup some of his lost popularity.  Section 7-A, sponsored and partially planned by Lewis, provided that workers had the right to bargain collectively and to pick unions of their own choosing.  

Once this section was accepted, Lewis put the U.M.W. machine in high gear.  By 1934, Lewis was able to report to his convention that union membership was over 400,000.  Uncertain of N.R.A. constitutional status, Lewis later pushed through the Guffey-Vinson act, “little N.R.A.” for coal, which created a National Bituminous Coal Commission.

Lewis’ career was now flourishing; he was beginning to look for new fields to conquer.  Slowly the realization had been growing in Lewis that craft unionism could not successfully organize the thousands on thousands of unskilled laborers in the country.  “The miners had the idea, get ’em all in one union from the trappers to the pickmen.”  

At the 1935 A.F.L. Convention in Atlantic City, a strong minority, including Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, David Dubinsky of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers, Thomas Brown of the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers and of course Lewis, pushed for the organization of new “vertical” unions.  Charles P. Howard of the Typographical Union introduced the minority report:

In those industries where the work performed by a majority of the workers is of such nature that it might fall within the jurisdictional claim of more than one craft union, or no established craft union, it is declared that industrial organization is the only form that will be acceptable to the workers or adequately meet their needs.

Basically, Lewis was thinking of the steel industry which actually controlled conditions in the captive mines:

The organization I represent has an interest in this question.  Our people work in a great base industry, basic in its service to the American people and the economic and commercial processes of the nation.  They struggle against great odds and against great influences, and the intensity of their struggle and the weight of their burden is greatly increased by reason of the fact that the American Federation of Labor has not organized the steel industry and a few other industries similarly situated.


We are anxious to have collective bargaining established in the steel industry and our interest in that is, to that degree, selfish because our people know that if the workers were organized in the steel industry and collective bargaining was an actuality there, it would remove the incentives of the great captains of the steel industry to destroy and punish and harass our people who work in the captive coal mines throughout the country, owned by the steel industry.


As I talk to you now, 21,000 of our members are on strike in the state of Alabama—not on strike, they are locked out, and the operators will not accept wage increases granted in the Appalachian Join Wage Conference, which they are obligated to do.  They are locked out because the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company, owned by the United States Steel Corporation, the Schloss-Sheffield Steel Company and others there are encouraging the poor, defenseless commercial coal operators of Alabama to fight the United Mine Workers of America and to refuse to apply these wage agreements.  And the Youngstown Sheet and Tube in Western Pennsylvania has our people locked out.  The steel industry is anxious to eliminate the United Mine Workers of America from its captive mines, so that they will constantly have that buffer between the coal-mining industry and collective bargaining in the steel industry.


I know that to be true, because I have conferred with the officers of the United Steel Corporation in relation to our contracts and they frankly admit that they oppose making collective bargaining contracts in the coal-mining industry because they do not want that power to follow and annoy them in the iron and steel industry,—and they have no more fear of the iron and steel workers annoying them than they have that the League of Nations will come over and impose a mandate or sanctions upon them.

When the minority report was voted down, Lewis and those who supported his industrial unionism formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (C.I.O.) within the framework of the A.F.L.  The first victory for the C.I.O. was the recognition of the United Rubber Workers by the Goodyear Rubber Company, after a bitter six weeks of sit-down striking and mass picketing.

The Steel Workers Organizing Committee was established in 1936.  Lewis himself broadcast on a national network to rally public support for an organizational drive in steel:

… This organization drive in the steel industry will be conducted in full, open gaze of the public, or in other words, through the radio and the press, the public will be continually informed. …


Let him who will, be economic tyrant or sordid necessary, pit his strength against this mighty upsurge of human sentiment now being crystallized in the hearts of thirty million workers who clamor for the establishment of industrial democracy and for participation in its tangible fruits.  He is a mad man or a fool who believes that this river of human sentiment … by the erection of arbitrary barriers of restraint.

While the union was taking strong steps to push steel organization, a widespread strike in the plants of General Motors (including a sit-down strike at the Fisher Body plant) provide another major test of C.I.O. strength.  After 42 days, General Motors capitulated, and the C.I.O. chalked up another victory.  The leaders of the United States Steel and the S.W.O.C. quietly came to an agreement shortly thereafter, without a strike.  By the end of 1936, the 510,000 men in the steel workers union formed a unit second in size only to the United Mine Workers.

By April, 1937, the C.I.O., now legally separated from the A.F.L., boasted 3,200,000 members as against 3,600,000 craft unionists in the Federation.  In December, 1935, C.I.O. membership had been less than 1,000,000; the rise was truly spectacular.

The defeat of the steel workers striking against Little Steel was unfortunate for the C.I.O.; it was perhaps even more unfortunate for Roosevelt’s New Deal administration.  Despite the fact that Little Steel (Republic) managers were responsible in large measure for the ruthless Memorial Day Massacres of striking steel workers (1937), Roosevelt hesitated to announce administration support for the C.I.O.  Most unfortunately, he announced his attitude as “A plague o’both your houses!”—a statement never to be forgotten nor forgiven by his one-time supporter, Lewis.  The following Labor Day, Lewis attacked Roosevelt publicly:

Labor, like Israel, has many sorrows.  Its women weep their fallen and they lament for the future of the children of the race.  It ill behooves one who has supped at labor’s table and who has been sheltered in labor’s house to curse with equal fervor and fine impartiality both labor and its adversaries when they become lacked in deadly embrace.—(Italics, author’s.)

By the time the U.M.W. was ready to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in 1940, Lewis was strong enough to offer Roosevelt threatening opposition on the national stage.  At the 1938 convention, Lewis had accepted a salary rise from $12,500 to $25,000 yearly; other officers’ salaries had also been doubled.  The Committee on Industrial Organization, A.F.L., had been formally changed to the Congress of Industrial Organization, independent of the A.F.L.  

After White House interference in the settlement, the coal strike of 1939 had resulted in a union shop agreement for the U.M.W.

*   *   *   *   *


John L. Lewis was now formulating the bitter isolationist policy which was destined to dog him later on.  Hostility between Roosevelt and the U.M.W. leader reached new heights.  At the mine workers’ celebration of the Golden Jubilee, he attacked the Democratic administration publicly:

In the last three years labor has not been given representation in the Cabinet, nor in the administrative or policy-making agencies of the government. …  Labor today has no point of contact with the Democratic Administration in power except for casual, occasional interviews which are granted its individual leaders.  In the Congress the unrestrained baiting and defaming of labor by the Democratic majority has become a pastime never subject to rebuke by the titular or actual leaders of the party.

In October, 1940, Lewis threw his public support to Willkie’s candidacy.

“I think,” he declared, “that the election of President Roosevelt for a third term would be a national evil of the first magnitude.  He no longer hears the cries of the people.  I think the election of Mr. Wendell Willkie is imperative in relation to the country’s needs.  I commend him to the men and women of labor as one who will capably and zealously protect their rights, increase their privileges and restore their happiness.”

In the same speech, Lewis pledged himself to resign from the presidency of the C.I.O. should the labor vote go to Roosevelt.  This promised Philip Murray the presidency in the November, 1940 C.I.O. convention.

Why had Lewis supported Willkie?  For one thing, his personal hatred of Roosevelt had if anything increased since 1937.  Secondly, Lewis had never been a “liberal”—he had successively supported Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover in his younger days.  Willkie’s struggle against the T.V.A. fitted in well with Lewis’ fight against the threat to coal of hydroelectric power.

Willkie’s defeat left Lewis for the moment on the sidelines of the American labor movement.  The subsequent break between Lewis and Murray was probably bound to come in time, unless Murray proved himself completely a Lewis puppet.  This Murray refused to be.  Lewis’ bitter hatred of Roosevelt and his equally violent isolationism emphasized the growing rift between the mine leader and the leader of the C.I.O. congenial to the White House.  Guided probably by his prejudices instead of his reason, Lewis chose to rely more and more on the left wing of the labor movement and particularly on the Communists who before June of 1941 were isolationists also.  No love of the Communists influenced Lewis, but a mistaken theory that he could dominate them as he dominated the U.M.W.

Then came June of 1941 and the German attack on Russia.  When Lewis refused to alter his foreign policy, he soon discovered that he was a forsaken leader.  Communist-dominated unions now joined the rest of the C.I.O. in what seemed to be an all-out attack against the mine leader.  After a bitter quarrel, Murray and Lewis parted enemies.

Mine Workers Withdraw from CIO

The withdrawal of the U.M.W. from the C.I.O. was postponed only long enough for Lewis to fight for the captive miners.  The so-called captive mines were owned by the seven major American steel companies producing 70 per cent of the nation’s steel, and for these companies the mines produced all the coal needed by their steel-owners.  Of the 53,000 miners working in the captive mines, more than 95 per cent were union members, with the union the recognized bargaining agency.  Lewis’ demand for a closed shop would have forced the less than five per cent non-union members into the U.M.W.  This was important to Lewis to advance the solidarity of the coal workers in the face of an inevitable war.  The closed shop in coal would also embarrass Murray in the steel industry.  His union was not such a cohesive entity as the U.M.W.

Lewis’ victory over the steel companies and over President Roosevelt was announced on December 7, 1941, when the three-man arbitration board, weighted at Lewis’ insistence for the miners, announced that it favored a union shop.4

With another victory chalked up, he proceeded against his former friend, Phil Murray.  First of all, he electrified the public and much of the labor movement with the proposal for unifying the A.F.L. with the C.I.O.  This hardly altruistic suggestion was circumvented with the expert political assistance of Roosevelt himself.  After this failure, Lewis drove Murray from his position as an officer of the U.M.W., in humiliating showdown.  Finally, in October of 1942, the U.M.W. voted, 2867 to 5, to leave the C.I.O.

Everyone is familiar with the battles between Lewis and Roosevelt during World War II, battles in which Lewis time and again struck or threatened to strike despite the possibility that the United States war effort might be impeded. Lewis’ supporters maintain that Lewis at no time allowed coal stocks to dwindle to a danger point.  This may well be true.  Yet his defiance of the federal government in war-time will never be forgotten.

On the other side of the ledger, the miners will never forget the gains Lewis wrung for them from a nation at war.  When Lewis finally broke down the Little Steel formula which tied down their wages while prices climbed, the coal miners were joined in their thanksgiving by thousands on thousands of other wage earners.  When Lewis savagely attacked those who were making huge profits on cost-plus contracts, American taxpayers of every class owed him gratitude.

Lewis unquestionably beat Franklin Roosevelt at his own game of politics during the war.  He has been somewhat less successful in dealing with Harry Truman.  In 1946, Judge Goldsborough of the Federal District Court in the District of Columbia fined the U.M.W. $3,500,000 and Lewis, $10,000 for defying of the King-Lewis agreement.  

Although the Supreme Court later reduced the amount of the fine against the union to $700,000, the clear-cut victory for Truman remained.  How did it happen that Lewis, who time and again bested Franklin Roosevelt, was defeated by Truman?  Saul Alinsky offers one explanation:

Lewis was so accustomed to dealing with a subtle, brilliant, wary Roosevelt that he could not anticipate the directness of a politically insensitive Truman.

Yet Lewis is not a man who can be defeated once and forever, and between 1947 and 1950 he has continued to fight the administration, the A.F.L. and the C.I.O. on behalf of Lewis and his mine workers.  Although he “rejoined” the A.F.L. in 1946, 1947 saw his withdrawal with a brief, scornful note:  “Green.  We disaffiliate.  Lewis.”  He had not been able to persuade or compel either the A.F.L. or the C.I.O. to follow his tactics against the hated Taft-Hartley Act, i.e., to ignore it.

Nineteen-forty-eight saw Lewis again fined by Judge Goldsborough; it also saw the inauguration, after a bitter struggle, of the hundred dollars a month pension plan for retired miners.  A royalty of 20 cents per ton on every ton of coal mined financed the U.M.W. Welfare and Retirement Fund.  In gratitude, the U.M.W. convention of 1948 doubled Lewis’ salary, now $50,000 yearly.

Appraising the Career of John L. Lewis

Impressive figures have been assembled showing Lewis’ contribution to the raising of living standards in the American mines.  Equally impressive stories are widely circulated proving the harsh, dictatorial brutality of this man, who so completely dominated the American labor movement and who still overshadows every other American labor leader.  

There is no denying Lewis’ contribution to the miners.  There is no denying the truth of much if not most of what his critics claim.  It is probably true, also, that most American miners at times have cursed Lewis, albeit quietly.  But in 1950 the overwhelming loyalty of the American miners still belongs to Lewis.

The lack of historical perspective makes it next to impossible to appraise Lewis’ career today.  He is the man primarily responsible for the rise of industrial unionism in the United States.  He is the man almost entirely responsible for the remarkable improvement in American mining condition.

At the same time, more than any other labor leader, Lewis has brought the wrath of public opinion down on the heads of organized labor.  He is unquestionably responsible for most of the anti-union sentiment in the United States today.  Much more important from a long-term point of view, Lewis is at least largely responsible for the increasing use of fuel oil and natural gas in  preference to coal and the consequent restriction of coal markets in the United States.  

His policy of striking and threatening has added to the instability of an already sick industry.  His current policy of restricting coal production by a three-day week shows his basic adherence to the economic theory that over-production rather than under-consumption represents the danger to the workingman.

It is difficult to analyze the theoretical beliefs of a man as devoted to action as Lewis.  According to the only book he ever wrote, he is a laissez faire economist devoted to the capitalist system.  Many of his activities belie this picture.  It seems certain that Lewis has never been interested in economic theory in the sense that, say, Gompers, became interested in his later life.  

An opportunist, he is less interested in the basic “fairness” of labor’s demands than in getting “more, now.”  The relationship between prices and wages is more than clear to him, but Lewis is more interested in continually raising wages than in attempting in any way to reach an equilibrium between prices and wages.

So far the miners have succeeded in getting “more.”  They have succeeded in restricting coal production.  Hourly rates and prices have gone up.  Perhaps this policy has resulted in “fair shares” for the miners.  But there is another party at interest, the consumer.  

The consumer is not moved by whether or not the miner is getting his “fair share.”  If oil will produce power and heat for less than coal he will turn from coal to oil.  This turn has helped create the biggest problem in John L. Lewis has had to face.


1.   Quoted in James Wechsler’s The Labor Baron.

2.   Ibid.

3.   It is perhaps significant that Lewis thought even then of overproduction rather than underconsumption.

4.   On the board were Fairless for the operators, Lewis for the miners, and John Steelman, Lewis’ friend, for the “public.”

Source: Current History, April, 1950


Bill Moyers Interviews Douglass A. Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name:

 The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (2008)

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

*   *   *   *   *

The Shadows of Youth

The Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation

By Andrew B. Lewis

With deep admiration and rigorous scholarship, historian Lewis (Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table) revisits the ragtag band of young men and women who formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Impatient with what they considered the overly cautious and accommodating pace of the NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr., the black college students and their white allies, inspired by Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence and moral integrity, risked their lives to challenge a deeply entrenched system. Fanning out over the Jim Crow South, SNCC organized sit-ins, voter registration drives, Freedom Schools and protest marches. Despite early successes, the movement disintegrated in the late 1960s, succeeded by the militant Black Power movement. The highly readable history follows the later careers of the principal leaders. Some, like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, became bitter and disillusioned.

Others, including Marion Barry, Julian Bond and John Lewis, tempered their idealism and moved from protest to politics, assuming positions of leadership within the very institutions they had challenged. According to the author, No organization contributed more to the civil rights movement than SNCC, and with his eloquent book, he offers a deserved tribute.—Publishers Weekly

*   *   *   *   *

Michelle Alexander: US Prisons, The New Jim Crow  / Judge Mathis Weighs in on the execution of Troy Davis

The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness 

By Michelle Alexander

The mass incarceration of people of color through the War on Drugs is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The absence of black fathers from families across America is not simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center. Hundreds of thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites. Most people seem to imagine that the drug war—which has swept millions of poor people of color behind bars—has been aimed at rooting out drug kingpins or violent drug offenders. Nothing could be further from the truth. This war has been focused overwhelmingly on low-level drug offenses, like marijuana possession—the very crimes that happen with equal frequency in middle class white communities.

*   *   *   *   *

Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism

By Derrick Bell

In nine grim metaphorical sketches, Bell, the black former Harvard law professor who made headlines recently for his one-man protest against the school’s hiring policies, hammers home his controversial theme that white racism is a permanent, indestructible component of our society. Bell’s fantasies are often dire and apocalyptic: a new Atlantis rises from the ocean depths, sparking a mass emigration of blacks; white resistance to affirmative action softens following an explosion that kills Harvard’s president and all of the school’s black professors; intergalactic space invaders promise the U.S. President that they will clean up the environment and deliver tons of gold, but in exchange, the bartering aliens take all African Americans back to their planet. Other pieces deal with black-white romance, a taxi ride through Harlem and job discrimination.

Civil rights lawyer Geneva Crenshaw, the heroine of Bell’s And We Are Not Saved (1987), is back in some of these ominous allegories, which speak from the depths of anger and despair. Bell now teaches at New York University Law School.—Publishers Weekly

*   *   *   *   *


Representing the Race

The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer

By Kenneth W. Mack

Representing the Race tells the story of an enduring paradox of American race relations, through the prism of a collective biography of African American lawyers who worked in the era of segregation. . . . Mack reorients what we thought we knew about famous figures such as Thurgood Marshall, who rose to prominence by convincing local blacks and prominent whites that he was—as nearly as possible—one of them. But he also introduces a little-known cast of characters to the American racial narrative. These include Loren Miller, the biracial Los Angeles lawyer who, after learning in college that he was black, became a Marxist critic of his fellow black attorneys and ultimately a leading civil rights advocate; and Pauli Murray, a black woman who seemed neither black nor white, neither man nor woman, who helped invent sex discrimination as a category of law. The stories of these lawyers pose the unsettling question: what, ultimately, does it mean to “represent” a minority group in the give-and-take of American law and politics? /

For Love of Liberty

*   *   *   *   *

Greenback Planet: How the Dollar Conquered

the World and Threatened Civilization as We Know It

By H. W. Brands

In Greenback Planet, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands charts the dollar’s astonishing rise to become the world’s principal currency. Telling the story with the verve of a novelist, he recounts key episodes in U.S. monetary history, from the Civil War debate over fiat money (greenbacks) to the recent worldwide financial crisis. Brands explores the dollar’s changing relations to gold and silver and to other currencies and cogently explains how America’s economic might made the dollar the fundamental standard of value in world finance. He vividly describes the 1869 Black Friday attempt to corner the gold market, banker J. P. Morgan’s bailout of the U.S. treasury, the creation of the Federal Reserve, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s handling of the bank panic of 1933. Brands shows how lessons learned (and not learned) in the Great Depression have influenced subsequent U.S. monetary policy, and how the dollar’s dominance helped transform economies in countries ranging from Germany and Japan after World War II to Russia and China today.

*   *   *   *   *

Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label ‘trafficked’ does not accurately describe migrants’ lives and that the ‘rescue industry’ serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice.

*   *   *   *   *

The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

*   *   *   *   *

If you like this page consider making a donation

online through PayPal

*   *   *   *   *

Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


*   *   *   *   *

The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

*   *   *   *   *

The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

*   *   *   *   *


*   *   *   *   *






update 8 July 2012




Home Blacks and Labor in Print  

Related files: Samuel Gompers    John Mitchell    John L. Lewis

  Walter Reuther

The Negro and Industrial Unionism  Labor Fights All Injustice   Amite County 

The Exiles: Kathleen Cleaver Interview     John Lewis Protests War in Iraq    What We Want by Stokely Carmichael   The Orangeburg Massacre and Its Aftermath 

Retrospective on Die Nigger Die by Amin Sharif   Roy Wilkins and Spiro Agnew in Annapolis