Harry Frankel

John L. Lewis

(November 1950)

From Fourth International, Vol.11 No.6, November-December 1950, pp.165-171.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006).

John L. Lewis occupies a unique position in the labor movement today. Leader of a bare three percent of the numerical strength of the American unions, he is the unchallenged pioneer in new developments in the industrial struggle. Autocrat supreme, he sits at the top of a bureaucratic machine of the traditional repressive type, yet his words and actions more closely represent the moods and interests of the mass of American workers than those of leaders in far more democratic unions. Isolated and scorned by the whole “official” labor movement, he everywhere enjoys the highest esteem of the union ranks. Government, industrialists, newspapers, politicians of both major parties, and other “labor leaders” conspire against him and his union, which nevertheless remains more powerful than ever before.

The attempts of labor historians and Lewis biographers to unravel the “mysteries” of Lewis are doomed to failure so long as they hinge their analysis on purely personal interpretations: Lewis is an “egomaniac,” Lewis is “power-mad,” Lewis is “stubborn.” An epoch of history cannot be understood in terms of one man’s characteristics. However impressive the individual may be, he lives and works in a society shaped by far more powerful forces than he can single-handedly overcome. Lewis has placed a deep personal stamp on the labor movement of America, but that mass labor movement and its environment have shaped Lewis and marked out the fundamental course of his own development. The “mysteries” of John L. Lewis are to be deciphered by understanding the development of American labor over the past thirty years, and first of all the United Mine Workers which is Lewis’s solid base.

Hazards of Coal Mining

The United Mine Workers of America is an organisation of men in one of the most hazardous and difficult of all occupations. The death and accident rate in the American mines is the highest in the world. During the years 1913-22, 4.4 persons were killed per 1000 man years in the coal mines of the United States and Canada. In only two other countries, Germany and South Africa, did the rate exceed 2 per 1000.

The death rate now is almost four men per million tons of coal, which means that in an average year almost 2000 men are killed outright in the mines. The frequency of accidents for bituminous coal is about three times that of industry in general. Accidents in the mines are far more severe, so that total time lost in accidents is more than six times that for industry in general. The miner can figure, each morning when he goes into the pits, that his chances of escaping unharmed through the year are slightly better than 9 to 1.

While recent struggles of the miners have raised their rate of pay to one of the highest in manufacturing industries, the annual earnings for a miner are more severely limited than in other industries. The mine industry suffers badly from that peculiarly capitalist plague known as “overproduction.” While the capacity of the industry to produce has at times approached one billion tons, average production is less than half that figure, and depression production fell to less than one-third of that. Thus, even in “good times,” most miners go without work for a large part of the year.

From 1923 to 1932, the industry worked at only 60.4% of capacity. In 1929, the best year of “normal” American capitalist prosperity, the average earnings of a coal miner were $588. By 1933, at the depth of the depression, average earnings dropped to $235. For this munificent sum, the miner took his 9 to 1 gamble on life or death.

Miners’ Militancy

Working under the most hazardous conditions at back-breaking toil, for an industry which keeps them perpetually pauperized, the miners are naturally inclined to make a militant response to their exploitation. There are additional factors. The miners are hemmed together in tiny rural settlements, which tends to increase their bonds of solidarity and strengthen their resistance to bourgeois pressures. The miners could never have been organized save in an industrial union, and the mine union has been an industrial union from the first.

Nor have Jim Crow locals been permitted. The miners would have found their approach to the Southern fields permanently barred by such a policy and without the Southern fields, the union would be crippled and in constant danger. Thus the mine union has been from the first a militant, industrial union, organized without regard to racial lines. With all its shortcomings, the UMW stood head and shoulders above all other unions of the AFL in the earlier clays of trade unionism.

This is the domain in which John L. Lewis sought and won hegemony.

Lewis’s career began as an administrative assistant in the old mine union and AFL. His talents, his speaking ability, his aggressiveness early brought him to the attention of Samuel Gompers, who appointed him legislative representative for the AFL in 1911. Later returning to the United Mine Workers, he was elected Vice President in 1918. From this time forward, the leadership of the UMW fell to Lewis since Frank Hayes, nominal head of the union, was a drinking man who left the actual running of the union to Lewis.

Lewis and His First Battle

Shortly after his election as Vice President, Lewis was flung into a battle of great scope. The national coal strike of 1919 was the prototype for the miners’ battles to come. Lewis, presiding over the UMW national convention of September 1919, faced a stormy convention representing a rebellious membership. The miners, restive under the wartime wage freeze, were pinched and starved by the rising prices of the war and postwar period. They demanded government ownership of the mines in a convention resolution passed by the 2000 delegates with only one dissenting vote.

The Nation reported: “The leadership, its reputation staked on ability to negotiate contracts and make the miners live up to them, was assailed as conservative, reactionary, ‘pets of the coal operators’.” We must remember that the mine union was then a far more democratic organization than today, UMW conventions were stormy, delegates were organized into caucuses and factions representing varying points of view, the left-wing labor groups were well represented, and the membership was noted for the scant respect with which it could treat the leaders.

Thus Lewis was compelled to serve as spokesman for the rank and file of the UMW in its most militant heyday. The September convention called for a 50% pay increase (from $5.00 to $7.50 per day) and other subsidiary demands. The coal operators were buttressed by the federal administration which maintained the fiction that the First World War was still going on. President Wilson employed as his personal representative during the coal dispute none other than Attorney General Palmer of “Red Raid” notoriety. A federal anti-strike injunction was sought and obtained, and in the face of this injunction, the miners struck. The pattern of future battles may be clearly seen.

Lewis was flung into a terrific class battle before he had scarcely gotten his bearings at the top of the UMW. He led the union in maintaining the strike in defiance of the federal injunction for more than five weeks. When he called off the strike, he did so with the statement, “I will not fight my government, the greatest government on earth.” This was four days after the indictment of 84 UMW leaders under the injunction. The pay increase won by the strike amounted to about $1.50 a day. Lewis had been christened in his first big battle, had felt the pressure of government and operators on one side, and of the vigorous ranks of the union on the other.

The Sequel to the 1919 Strike

The sequel to the mine strike of 1919 was a lesson for Lewis. Attorney General Palmer was indiscreet enough to take the announcement by Lewis of acceptance of terms as the finish to the strike, although union militants were proclaiming that the strike would not be over until the Indianapolis ratifying convention, summoned for December 10, had made its decision. On the morning of December 10 Palmer wired Wilson: “The miners will meet promptly at two o’clock and will promptly acquiesce in the President’s plan.” This assignment of the miners’ ranks to the role of a rubber stamp for Lewis caused him no end of difficulty. Palmer was compelled to disavow his wire as a misquote, and Lewis faced a bitter and rebellious convention. Only the feverish efforts of the machine, combined with the brilliant oratorical talent of the young Vice President, brought the convention to a ratification. Even so, “wildcat strikes” swept the coal fields for months after the settlement, with a portion of the miners succeeding in adding 7 percent to the agreed settlement on wages.

The atmosphere of strife in which Lewis made his 1919 debut on the national scene was to surround Lewis constantly during the three subsequent decades. Lewis is often capable of learning from experience. He learned much from the experience of 1919. The ranks taught him in 1919 that they are in the unions for purposes of struggle. Lewis has always taken this militancy into account. He has often reflected it, and no less often betrayed it, especially in his period of arrant class-collaboration during the Twenties and early Thirties, but he has never omitted it from his calculations.

His Bureaucratic Machine

While Lewis has shown himself in recent years to be a union leader who reflects, to a greater degree than any other at the top, the capacity for combativity and class independence of the American workers, he has supplemented this with another feature that has characterized his rule in the mine union. Lewis takes no chances with his personal power. He has attemped to deliver the goods for the workers who have followed him (to the best of his understanding and within narrow trade union limits), but he does not leave to chance the fortunes of his personal rule. He has built a bureaucratic machine which is intended to hold power whether it can deliver the goods or not. This is the task which occupied him during the Twenties and the early Thirties.

The Lewis machine in the present International and down through the districts of the UMW was once only one of several factions in the UMW. During the Twenties, Lewis controlled the top posts in a turbulent federation made up of relatively autonomous, districts and factions: the hard-coal miners of eastern Pennsylvania, the Illinois District dominated by Frank Farrington, a powerful and unscrupulous fighter similar in many ways to Lewis himself, the Kansas District led by Alex Howat. The left wing factions headed by the Socialist and Communist parties and other groupings fought a bitter battle over the emaciated body of a dwindling union seeking to survive in a sick capitalist industry.

At one time the power of the union over which Lewis presided had almost disappeared everywhere but in the Illinois fields, and the Illinois District was controlled by Lewis’s most powerful opponents. In March 1930 a convention of the insurgent districts claimed the banner of the union at a gathering in Springfield, Illinois, where 500 delegates were brought together. Lewis ventured into many of the mine fields only at the peril of his safety and was very often prevented from speaking entirely at meetings in rebellious districts.

John Brophy, one of Lewis’s union opponents, wrote bitterly in 1929:

“Between then (1919) and now lies the tragedy of broken faith, lost hopes, bitter defeats and the almost total destruction of a once powerful union ... Smug satisfaction with itself marked the Lewis leadership.”

A Justified Indictment

And the resolution adopted by the so-called “rump convention” at Springfield reviewed his record as follows:

“The history of the United Mine Workers of America under the regime of John L. Lewis has been an unbroken series of defeats. The regime has thrown hundreds of thousands of our members and their families into the depths of poverty and destitution. Election stealing, convention packing, and slugging of delegates have reduced the old time democracy of the union to a ghastly farce.”

This indictment was justified. But out of this degradation, with the tremendous upturn of the mass movement beginning with 1933, came a new and different chapter in the life of the mine union and in the career of its leader. This was symbolized by the fact that critic Brophy became one of his chief lieutenants in the organizing drives of the Thirties.

While Lewis assiduously built a machine during the Twenties, and scorned no method of dictatorial and bureaucratic rule, the consolidation of his power came only with the resurgence of union spirit and the great organization drive of 1933-34, which Lewis initiated, and a large part of its success must be attributed to his leadership. Bureaucratic methods alone could not secure for him unchallenged dominion of the UMW. A great union victory which gave the rank and file for the first time a degree of confidence in his leadership was required.

The largest part of the mine union is today under centralized, dictatorial rule which originated in “provisional” appointments and receiverships during the Twenties and early Thirties. District heads and organizers are appointed by the International office. (This system was carried over by Philip Murray into the Steelworkers Union, where Murray provided for the United Steelworkers of America all the defects of the United Mine Workers machine without any of the advantages.)

While Lewis is today generally accepted as “boss” in the union, the militant elements of the ranks maintain a suspicious watchfulness, and make their independence felt from time to time. The miners are quick to resent the implication that they do not make their own decisions and give public demonstrations of this feeling in case after case.

Workers Learn a Lesson

The depression of the Thirties by its catastrophic severity revolutionized the thinking of millions of workers and taught them the fundamental lesson that capitalist-owned and controlled industry cannot provide even minimum living standards for the working people. The first major conclusion drawn from this lesson by the workers was that they must build their own organizations as the only reliance in the fight for economic security. This found expression in the vast unionization of the Thirties.

The United Mine Workers seized the opportunity from the first. Where years of pounding had not succeeded in making any dent in the anti-union coal fields before, now all barriers dissolved before the anger and turmoil of the masses. Workers flocked to the UMW by the tens of thousands and made the union cause their cause. In 1933 the union had dwindled to less than 100,000 members, the treasury to $75,000. Within a few months, the UMW was built up to its solid fighting strength of half a million. Never before had the country seen anything like it.

The CIO can trace its origins to this great UMW drive which was only the first expression of the new consciousness of the mass of American workers. The months immediately following the great miners’ organization drive were full of warnings to the AFL bureaucrats. Deep rumblings in the depths of the mass of the unorganized industrial workers foreshadowed great impending battles. The Minneapolis teamsters’ strikes of ’34, the San Francisco longshore and general strike of that year, the Toledo battles in the automotive industry showed that the tidal wave of industrial unionization was at last arriving.

Lewis saw the signs and interpreted them correctly. His assault on the AFL hierarchy and his definitive split with the old Federation demonstrate that he banked all on his interpretation of what he saw. Whatever his personal motives, it is sufficient to understand that the moves taken by Lewis along with a portion of the old AFL officialdom in 1935 were caused by the impressions made upon them by this vast and turbulent movement of the American workers.

This segment of the old AFL brought to the new movement the prestige, finances, and manifold strength of established organizations. It also brought the not inconsiderable organizing and strategic talents of John L. Lewis. The American industrial workers could have done much better, had events and past developments provided them with a Marxist leadership. They also could have done worse.

Type of Leadership Required

The industrial workers of 1935 surging into the union movement required three things of their leadership in those days:

  1. They wanted leaders who would venture wholeheartedly into the mass production field with the industrial union structure.
  2. They wanted leaders who were not afraid of a split with the AFL hierarchy.
  3. They wanted leaders who would not interfere with the militant methods of struggle which they were choosing and which were essential to victory.

Lewis, and we may add, Lewis alone of the top hierarchy of the old AFL, supplied all three requirements. He made clear his fundamental break with craft unionism and his readiness for a split with the AFL in a series of dramatic demonstrations on the floor of the AFL convention in 1935, culminating in his “Macedonian call” speech and his physical attack on Bill Hutcheson, proceeding from there to the organization of a committee for industrial unionization and resignation from the AFL Executive Council. He made clear that he would go along in the most militant methods of struggle during the fateful crisis days of the CIO of the General Motors strike battles of December 28, 1936 to February 11, 1937.

Lewis describes the situation at the time of the 1935 AFL convention in the following words:

By 1935, the workers were in a state of ferment. They had arisen, after the passage of the NRA and particularly Section 7A. To them, this was a proclamation of freedom; and as the workers responded and demanded organization by the AFL, the AFL, squirming with fear, shrank from the responsibilities which the workers of the nation were literally thrusting into its hands. Instead of leadership the AFL gave them a number of chicken-livered business agents who knew nothing except collecting dues, issuing some charters, and keeping peace and harmony. Their business agents feared any kind of an upsurge as being something “radical” or, of course, dangerous. The character and convictions of these business agents were such that they could check out of their union offices on Saturday and begin work for the National Association of Manufacturers on the following Monday.

The workers were seduced; they were sold down the river; they were betrayed; and only a burning passion on the part of the vast masses of the unorganized kept them from being completely filled with disgust and cynicism and running up the white flag and turning their backs on the organized labor movement. Some of them did give up; some of them were so embittered by their experience with the AFL business agents, that they swore they never wanted to see another union man again. There are parts of the steel industry which never accepted the CIO and it will take at least a new generation to wipe out the foul taste of treason which the AFL left among steel workers in 1933.

By 1935 the workers, embittered, frustrated, and filled with a certain degree of hopelessness, began to hate the conservative, short-sighted, ignorant labor leadership of the American Federation of Labor almost as much as they did their own employers who were exploiting them. They were caught between two interests, both selfish and shortsighted and both grinding their hopes and dreams into dirty dust. Bill Hutcheson represented symbolically the kind of leadership in the American Federation of Labor that the workers of this country detested. It was Bill Hutcheson’s supporters and associates in the AFL who successfully blocked every single move that was made in the direction of industrial unionism. All I will say is that I never walked across an aisle so slowly and so grimly as I did that day in the 1935 convention. An act of some kind, an act dramatic to the degree that it would inspire and enthuse the workers of this country was necessary. Did I say necessary? It was essential. With this in mind, I laid my plans. The 1935 convention of the American Federation of Labor was to be the scene, and Bill Hutcheson, unknowingly, was to be one of the main actors of the cast ... (John L. Lewis, by Saul Alinsky, p.77.)

Lewis Forms the CIO

Whether Lewis’s attack on Hutcheson was premeditated or impulsive, or a combination of both, things took place as Lewis describes them. The blow was struck, serving notice to the industrial workers that their anger against the AFL was equaled by his own. The next morning Lewis gathered a group of associates in the CIO formation meeting.

The great crisis of the CIO came with the General Motors sitdowns at the opening of 1937. The surge of the auto workers was initiated by no one but the workers themselves. Lewis and his group had chosen steel as the battleground, 1936 as the year of planning, and 1937 as the year of attack. However, the workers in rubber and auto, without the union background of the steelworkers, jumped over the heads of the leaders, made 1936 and the first month of 1937 the decisive time, and the cities of Akron, Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, Toledo as the battlegrounds, while the CIO leadership had its eyes fixed upon Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Gary.

The rubber workers’ and later the auto workers’ assault upon the corporations was a gigantic revolutionary act, the greatest event in the history of American labor. Without asking permission of any man (including their new CIO union leaders), they occupied the plants of their chief industrial enemies, and fixed a bulldog grip on the throat of the financiers’ empire. Lewis’s reaction in the face of this event was truly remarkable, and serves to distinguish him from every other national trade union leader of this day. He accepted the weapon the workers had presented and fearlessly matched their tenacity in the plants with a determination of his own at the bargaining table. In so doing, of course, he merely gave to the workers that which their leadership owed them, backing which matched their courage and tenacity. But how many others have paid this debt to the ranks when the chips were down?

Did Lewis Create the CIO?

Those who picture the CIO as the “creation” of John L. Lewis are dead wrong. Lewis dove into the field of industrial organization with the timing of a master of strategy. He possesses that attribute which is so rare as to be virtually extinct in the trade union officialdom today: the willingness and ability to sense the mood of the mass of industrial workers and to draw his strategy from that mood. He has displayed this characteristic time and again. But he did not “create” the CIO. The millions of unorganized industrial workers of America created it. They caught Lewis and other leaders up in a whirlwind of action and revolt and tossed them to and fro for almost five years in the stormy winds of a proletarian hurricane. This is the fundamental truth about the birth of the CIO.

The first five years of the CIO were the height of the power of John L. Lewis. During that period, he appeared to undergo a great transformation, from an encrusted mossback to a “dynamic” and “progressive” leader. This was especially gratifying to the liberals, the Stalinists and Social Democrats, and to the Democratic Party, to which he then adhered. Lewis, having been a traditional, dictatorial AFL bureaucrat, turned over a new leaf and became the darling of the reformers of the Thirties.

However, this was not only a period of dynamic achievement in the life of Lewis. It was also the period of one of his greatest betrayals. An analysis of the circumstances of those days soon makes this manifest.

The vast, uncontrollable upsurge of the Thirties which carried Lewis to the heights had great implications for the workers of the US American labor appeared to be on the verge of a new era. It seemed that finally, the American workers were about to break their ties with the capitalist political world and unfold the independent political movement of the working class. It is now common knowledge how this development was thwarted by the Democratic Party under Roosevelt in alliance with the labor officialdom.

John L. Lewis was an active junior partner in the Roosevelt firm. He acquiesced in the betrayal with word and deed. His occasional public clashes with the administration do not negate the general role he played. Quite the contrary, his partial independence of the government on the trade union field reinforced his authority among the workers and made him the greatest single factor in swinging the CIO into line. That is why Lewis’s role at that time dealt a graver blow to labor than his fiercely red-baiting, machine-building, class-collaborationist years of the Twenties.

Lewis today protests that he realized from 1937 on that he was dealing with traitorous politicians who did not want to see labor go forward. His private attitude of those days and his present hindsight do not alter the public role that he played. Granting even that he knew better, as he now claims, that does not excuse his actions but only makes them more consciously unprincipled. From 1933 to 1939 he helped to create the reformist myths of the New Deal, and when he chose to break with Roosevelt, he found himself helpless before his own collaborators and the misguided ranks of the unions.

Lewis and the Federal Administration

Nevertheless during the Thirties, despite his part in the New Deal betrayal, Lewis maintained considerable independence from the government, if not on the political, at least on the trade union field. He did not permit the administration to set limits upon the organizing campaigns of the unions. In strike battles, he mercilessly exploited the contradiction between the “liberal” phrases and strikebreaking intentions of the administration.

Other leaders have lived through the seething cauldron of the Thirties only to succumb entirely to the threats and blandishments of American capitalism. In part, as we have indicated, Lewis was shaped by the stronger forces of a more militant rank and file. But to attribute his special role in the unions entirely to this factor is to take a view unworthy of Marxism which places great stress upon the part played by the personal factor in class battles.

John L. Lewis is today the chief protagonist of the following idea within the union movement: that labor must break the shackles that bind it to the government apparatus and proceed to fight for its demands unhampered by any ties which would restrict it. Lewis himself tells an interesting story intended to demonstrate that this has always been his principle.

In 1919 Lewis proposed to the resolutions committee of the Buffalo convention of the AFL that a large-scale campaign be initiated to organize the unorganized workers. He immediately came face to face with opposition from Gompers. Lewis describes the incident as follows:

I felt that here was the perfect opportunity to launch an organization drive and build the ranks of organized labor in this country. I would have organized all the unorganized coal miners through the South, West Virginia, and other places at the time, but I was stopped when Gompers came to me and told me about the status quo agreement which he had with Woodrow Wilson which forbade any disturbance or unrest such as a union organizing drive. Gompers insisted that the agreement be respected. When Gompers told me that, I must say to you that it chilled the very marrow of my bones; and I decided right then and there that I would never permit a union or myself to get so involved in and so dependent upon a federal administration that in times of crisis the ties of loyalty and agreement and obligation to that administration would paralyze me from acting in the interests of labor as it did with Gompers in 1919. The favorable opportunities for labor to organize are precious few, and they cannot be waived at the whim of a President. Every opportunity must be exploited to the full whenever it arises. (Alinsky, op. cit., p.28.)

Let us examine other of Lewis’s statements on similar themes.

It was during the winter of 1937, when we were gripped in fatal conflict with the corporation of General Motors that I discovered the depths of deceit, rank dishonesty, and the doublecrossing character of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (Ibid., p.130.)

In a quiet, confidential way, he (Roosevelt) approaches one of my lieutenants, weans his loyalty away, overpowers him with the dazzling glory of the White House, and appoints him to a federal post under such circumstances that his prime loyalty shall be to the President, and only a secondary, residual one to the working-class movement from which he came ... You mark my words, if Franklin D. Roosevelt ever tells Sidney Hillman to break a strike, Sidney Hillman will issue the order to break a strike ... Sidney often told me I could never understand what it meant to a person who was an immigrant not only to be welcome in the White House but to have the President call him by his first name. (Ibid., pp.183-84.)

Philip (Murray) has often been that way. He just gets completely flattered when he receives any attention from any national figures, and as you know, at the White House, the President will treat him like an old dirty piece of laundry, and then call him in and order him as you would a puppy. (Ibid., pp.233-34.)

What Sets Him Off from the Others

These statements, when stripped of the personal and reduced to their ideological content, could have been made by no major trade union leader other than Lewis. They are saturated with a deep contempt for any manifestation of subservience and for any loss of independence on the part of a labor leader. Take notice of the bitter reference to those who owe their “prime loyalty” to the administration and “only a secondary, residual” loyalty to the labor movement. In this one sharp and bitter sentence is summed up 99% of the superior powers of Lewis. For him, the labor movement is and must be a law unto itself. And it is a form of betrayal to appeal to any higher court than the interests of the labor movement.

It may be objected that Lewis views the interests of the labor movement in a bureaucratic-power fashion. This certainly is so. As a matter of fact, this defect saturates the whole upper crust of the labor movement today. The loyalty of Lewis is largely the loyalty of a bureaucrat toward that which he controls and exploits. But bearing this in mind, he has made unionism more completely his “prime loyalty” than has any other major labor leader.

Lewis says today he believes that the labor movement must achieve independence from the government. We have seen this from his actions as well as from his words. His recent battle to smash the protective device of the employers known as the Taft-Hartley Law, and to bring the corporations out in the open where they will have to fight with their own strength, is proof he is sticking to his guns. But the most dramatic and courageous demonstration given by Lewis of the fundamental policy that sets him apart was the leadership of four coal strikes in 1943 during the middle of the Second World War. Those greatest class battles of the war, displaying both the militancy of the miners and the courage of Lewis, decisively set him off from the common run.

Upon the mine fields of the United States and in the capital of the greatest warring bourgeois nation, Lewis developed a magnificent campaign. His great strategic talents displayed themselves as never before in those wartime battles. That the strikes ended in amazing victory serves as proof today that the American workers can fight and win against the greatest odds when given a leadership that is willing to go even part of the way with them.

Lewis places before us the picture of thirty years of complex and contradictory activity. How are we to assess this remarkable man? Judged from the “pure and simple” trade union viewpoint, Lewis is an extremely able leader. His fighting methods and his fighting words reflect the great fighting caliber of the American workers. Inspiring in battle, he is relentless at the bargaining table, shrewd in his maneuvering.

A Master Tactician

His maneuverability, as a matter of fact, is Lewis’s greatest asset. Time and again, he has seemingly hung impaled on the horns of a dilemma, with no way out but capitulation. Lewis invariably finds an open path. He never sees a situation in terms of plain black and plain white; he searches out the shadings and alternatives.

His fertile brain has originated portal-to-portal pay, the welfare fund, the three-day work week, and the many ways of defying a government injunction with the power of the miners union. His resourcefulness combined with a willingness to free the battle spirit of the ranks make him a powerful general who stands far above the other national trade union leaders.

Lewis, however, cannot be judged solely as a pure and simple trade unionist when unionism has long ceased to be either “pure” or “simple.” Every big union battle for the past twenty and more years has led straight to Washington. The federal power dominates all. It is imperative for every union leader to grasp the political content of the prevailing state power, of imperialist wars, of the socialist goal which the modern working class is seeking, consciously and semi-consciously, to attain.

John L. Lewis, ofttimes Republican, and sometimes Democrat, has undoubtedly failed the working class in this respect. His political role has been shallow, opportunist and totally deficient when measured against the needs of the workers.

Of course, Marxists cannot join the chorus of the lackeys of the Democratic Party in the unions who raise their hands in horror when Lewis endorses a Republican, while themselves condoning the policy of supporting any Democratic strike-breaker and war-monger. They jeer at the Elephant with the hee-haw of the Donkey. For the workers, capitalist politics is a stick that is dirty at both ends. We must examine Lewis’s politics from this critical and independent labor standpoint.

The Break with Roosevelt

The greatest political crisis in Lewis’s career came at the time of the 1940 presidential elections, when Roosevelt sought his third term. Lewis had broken with Roosevelt personally some time before, and in the meantime, Roosevelt continued his campaign to “wean away” the CIO leadership from Lewis and labor. This campaign was entirely successful.

Lewis was like an enraged and wounded animal in those days. He was baffled by bigger things than had ever before confronted him. Without realizing it, Lewis was face to face with the inexorable decline of capitalism, and its consequent movement toward war and the regimentation of labor. While he still dreamed of a labor movement of 40,000,000 members, the powerful ascension of labor in the political realm with himself perhaps at the apex, capitalism commanded the labor movement to fall into retreat, and transform itself from an independent power to a mere auxiliary of the war machine. All the other national trade union leaders had already come to heel, with the exception of the Stalinists in the period the Stalin-Hitler pact (and they were soon to fall into line).

Lewis was left isolated, enraged, baffled, his course interrupted by the reactionary plunge of American capitalism which he had not foreseen, and to which he would not adjust himself as did the others. Like many another reformist who banks on the gradual evolution of society toward “something better,” Lewis was disturbed and angered by the sudden disruption of his plans by the realities of capitalism. However, the capitalist system is evolving in accordance with fundamental laws which Lewis cannot overthrow and which operate despite his failure to take notice of them.

Lewis’s Political Role

Lewis is helpless before modern capitalism because he has no political philosophy. He has stated: “I am not a Republican, I am not a Democrat, I am not a Socialist, I am not a Communist. I am for labor.” Nevertheless, while boasting a lack of political orientation, Lewis has participated actively in national politics for the past thirty years and more, making political endorsements and political attacks, backed up by the active and financial support of his organizations. During the past 15 years he has not tied himself entirely to either of the two capitalist parties, and certainly has not subordinated his union activity to the dictates of capitalist machines.

What then is Lewis’s political role? We have spoken before of the masterful maneuvering that characterizes Lewis in trade union battles. This method he has attempted to transplant onto the political field. His political activity has essentially been of a maneuverist type, seeking advantage in temporary alignments with capitalist politicians and even at times with radical labor groupings while committing himself permanently to nothing.

However, maneuvering is effective only when conducted in the service of principles and for the achievement of worthy ends. When Lewis attempts to duplicate in politics his masterful strategic work on the economic front, he finds himself entirely helpless and has been defeated time and again. Why is this? Because, while on the trade union arena Lewis serves definite ends and labor principles, on the political field he is without such principles and without a goal. To characterize Lewis politically, we must name him an unprincipled maneuverer.

Lewis supported Harding, Coolidge and Hoover during the Twenties and early Thirties when he was a rock-ribbed Republican. During those years the coal industry and the mine union declined catastrophically. Lewis’s obeisance before the “free enterprise system” paid no dividends for the miners.

He switched to Roosevelt in a strategic move designed to squeeze “concessions” out of the Democratic administration. Experience soon demonstrated that the Democratic Party and the president would hamper and restrict the CIO whenever possible without making it too obvious. However, Lewis went through his whole CIO period without unmasking Roosevelt. Then, when Lewis, enraged by the rightward and warlike course of the administration, broke with Roosevelt, he was helpless before the Roosevelt myth which he himself had helped create and spread in the labor movement. Confronted with this situation, he capped his whole miserable performance by endorsing the Republican candidate for president in 1940. This put a pathetic end to his heroic role of the CIO days and conclusively demonstrated the bankruptcy of unprincipled maneuvering, even when conducted by a master.

If the aim of trade union struggles is the bettering of wages and working conditions, what is the political goal of labor? No one can fulfill the role of labor politician without realizing that the ferocious contest of the two giant modern economic classes must terminate sooner or later in unchallenged supremacy of one or the other; that the workers’ victory can be nothing less than a labor government leading to socialism; that all labor political struggles must be directed toward this end. Lewis is not willing to accept this. On the other hand, Lewis refuses to follow Murray and Green into the swamp of complete subservience to capitalist politics. Lewis cannot be a labor politician, he will not be a capitalist politician, and so he has rejected the political fight altogether.

Lewis in recent years has refrained from making national political endorsements, while continuing his harassment of politicians with his trade union battles. Some may draw from this the inference that Lewis is learning. However, Lewis has already passed his 70th birthday and will not continue his education too much longer. Without writing off this militant septuagenarian who still appears to have much life and battle in him, we can say that if he is learning politically, Lewis is learning far too slowly and too late.

John L. Lewis has surpassed his contemporaries among the union officialdom, and yet, for all his unusual merits he proved incapable of breaking loose from their basic limitations. In the last analysis, he failed to meet the leadership requirements of the advancing working class and its immense tasks and aims. But the pages of labor history made and illuminated by the industrial workers of this country during the past 15 years will feature his name in bold-faced capital letters.


Last updated on 19.7.2006