Monday, May 5, 2008

John L. Lewis: 1919

from the prelinger archives

In November, 1919, Acting President John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers led 600,000 miners in a five week strike that crippled the bituminous coal industry and the nation as well. The strike was in direct defiance of a court injunction against such action and Woodrow Wilson denounced Lewis as a dictator. This was John L. Lewis' first clash with a United States president; he missed battle with no other president from then on up to Eisenhower.
On December 11, President Wilson and Attorney General Palmer presented Lewis with a proposal that would send the miners back to work: a 14% wage increase (they were getting $2.00 per day) and a commission to work out other questions in the dispute such as hours, health and safety standards. Lewis accepted immediately and the men returned to work, proving their loyalty to their country, he said. Attorney General Palmer commended Mr. Lewis for his wise and patriotic action.
The coal operators, however, charged Palmer with surrender and said that he feared a terrible situation if the government had been forced to jail the miners. A Congressional Committee decided to investigate the strike.
When John L Lewis retired 40 years later, in 1960, the coal miners wages had risen to $24.25 a day, the shanty company towns had been obliterated, safe and health standards had reached a new high. He said to the miners on his retirement: "I hope that each of you will believe through the years I have been faithful to your interests...that each of you will grant me an honorable discharge in approval of my work."


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