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New International, March–April 1950


Walter Jason

John L. Lewis


From New International, Vol. XVI No. 2, March–April 1950, pp. 122–123.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


John L. Lewis
by Saul Alinsky
G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 387 pp. $3.00.

The scene is the White House; the time, 1940. Standing before President Roosevelt’s bed is John L. Lewis. “If you want the CIO’s support, what assurances can you give the CIO?” (Lewis is telling the story.)

“The President became irritated and snapped at me, ‘Well, what do you mean, haven’t I always been friendly to the CIO?’ I didn’t answer. He continued and his voice rose angrily. ‘Haven’t I always been a friend of labor, John?’

“I said, ‘Well, Mr. President, if you are a friend of labor, why is the FBI tapping all my phones, both my home and my office, and why do they have instructions to follow me about?’

“The President said, ‘That’s not true!’

“I said, ‘I say it is true!’

“The President said, ‘That’s a damn lie.’

“I got up, looked down at him and said, ‘Nobody can call John L. Lewis a liar and least of all Franklin Delano Roosevelt!’ Then I started walking out and got my hat and coat. Just as I got to the door, the President called out, ‘Come back, John. I want to talk to you.’ I walked back and I said, ‘My phones are tapped, and they are, and everything I said is true, and whatever I said I know because I can prove it by Frank Murphy, who told me so and who knows about it because he has seen your orders to the FBI to do so ...’”

Roosevelt changed the subject and the conference ended abruptly. Soon Lewis announced his support of Wendell Willkie and the break between the two pillars of the New Deal was irrevocable. After the 1940 election Lewis resigned as CIO president because the ranks refused to follow him into the Republican camp.

The incident related above dramatizes what Alinsky calls the great tragedy of the labor movement, and he attributes the end of the militant surge of the labor movement, as well as the end of the New Deal, to the split between Lewis and Roosevelt. Actually this judgment completely misses the whole point of Alinsky’s own book.

The chief impact of the Lewis story in this official “unofficial” biography, is a powerful indictment of Roosevelt in his relationship to the labor movement.

What were some of the main reasons for the Lewis-Roosevelt break? First, even today no one dares dispute Lewis’ version of his argument with Roosevelt during the General Motors strike in 1937. Roosevelt wanted the sit-downers to leave the plants, go back to work and then negotiate. Secondly, as even Philip Murray must remember, Roosevelt refused elementary assistance to the CIO during the little steel strike. Roosevelt publicly rebuked the CIO after the Memorial Day massacre in Chicago in 1937 with his dictum, “a plague on both your houses.” And only Lewis of all the CIO leaders dared protest Roosevelt’s imperious disregard of the lawlessnes of the Chicago police in that brutal murder. Third, does anyone in the top CIO leadership today dare challenge Lewis’ acid description of how Roosevelt seduced it into his fold?

One of the interesting by-products of this period and of this book is the story of Murray’s shift of allegiance from a subservience to Lewis to subservience to Roosevelt The whole story that Lewis tells of the New Deal days is how the new labor leadership of the CIO deserted the struggle for the elementary interests of the rank and file in response to Roosevelt’s nebulous and unremitted promises.

The tragedy of the split between Lewis and Roosevelt on those issues was not that two great personalities were now apart, but that the CIO leadership did not support Lewis in his opposition to Roosevelt. The tragedy of Lewis, however, was that finding himself isolated he reacted in a manner reminiscent of his days of political bankruptcy during the 1920s when his chief reputation was that of the most belligerent and successful fighter against progressive ideas in the American labor movement.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Lewis’ career consisted of his wavering and toying with new ideas in the summer of 1940 before he took a political step backward. This writer recalls Lewis’ speech at the Townsend convention in St. Louis, Missouri, in the summer of 1940. Lewis made an urgent plea for a new third party based on a coalition of labor, poor farmers and Negroes, dedicated to fighting for the interests of the common people. The next day Lewis appeared before the United Auto Workers convention at St. Louis and made a devastating analysis of how the New Deal had been turned into the War Deal, and he urged labor to back him in fighting against pro-war policies.

Why did Lewis drop all these ideas and turn to Willkie? The explanation given in Alinsky’s book that Lewis did not want to help the Communists is, of course, superficial. Building the CIO “helped the Commies,” in a sense, but that did not deter Lewis. Even more pertinent, what does Lewis think now after his war experiences and the Taft-Hartley law and the 1950 strike struggle? Surely an authoritative biography should provide a clue to this question. But Alinsky unfortunately leaves the truly important questions unanswered.

Though largely a superficial journalistic book, much of it is very enjoyable reading. The Lewis scorn of the CIO and AFL bureaucrats is here shown in its finest flavor. The cynical character of Washington politics stands exposed. But its virtual whitewash of Lewis’ dictatorial methods, his political blindness and the limitations of his whole approach to unionism and to social problems show that Alinsky shares the deficiences and weaknesses of his subject.

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