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Jack Wilson

A Portrait of John L. Lewis

(May 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 4, May 1942, pp. 102–107.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In the multifarious activities of the labor movement during the past eight years – since industrial unionism become a living reality in the mass production industries – we have been asked one question by union militants: What is John L. Lewis going to do? This was a big question at the AFL convention in 1934 when the industrial union issue irrevocably divided the progressives and the craft union diehards. It had been the big question long before ... and ever since.

John L. Lewis has been an influential figure in the American labor movement since he assumed the presidency of the United Mine Workers in 1918. No leader, except Samuel Gompers, the father and guiding spirit of the American Federation of Labor for two decades, reached the power and stature of the “founder of the CIO.” No man in the labor movement can look back at such an amazing, stormy and rugged career as can John L. Lewis. Today, as always, the curses and the praises of John L. Lewis are heard across the land. Today, as always, he is pictured as everything from a devil to the Samson of labor, from a fascist to a Lincoln, from the man-of-tomorrow to a has-been. But let us set things in their proper proportions.

Few men in life are endowed as fully with the talents and capabilities of John L. Lewis. Even as a young coal miner before the First World War, his shrewd mind, his burly, rugged body, his roaring voice, his slugging ability, made an impression on all who chanced to meet him. Small wonder that he soon worked himself into statistician for the United Mine Workers, having already attracted the eye of Samuel Gompers, who picked him as an up-and-coming figure in the union movement.

John L. Lewis began his climb upward in an epoch of machine politics in America, an epoch well described in Lincoln Steffens’ muckraking works and his autobiography. And it was an epoch of flaming, passionate, revolutionary idealism and courage. John L. Lewis made his choice early in 1913, when he went to Akron, Ohio, during a city-wide rubber workers’ strike. The revolutionary industrial unionism preached by Bill Haywood, one-time president of the Western Federation of Miners, left no mark on the young AFL organizer, Lewis, who sought to win the embittered strikers to the conservative union. Both Lewis and the IWW lost. Akron remained open shop until 1936, when Lewis reversed himself and supported the striking rubber workers, which led to the CIO’s first major victory.

How Lewis Become UMWA President

Functioning as an AFL organizer, and a miners’ special representative, Lewis learned the ropes of machine politics during the First World War. The notorious Tammany Hall, Penrose and other political machines had their deadly counter-parts in the trade unions. Lewis plunged eagerly into this atmosphere like a duck into water, his abilities pushing him forward at a rapid pace. The almost unknown John L. Lewis became president of the United Mine Workers of America in 1919, without ever having been elected to a previous office by the rank and file. He had already served as acting president and was chosen to the highest post by the executive board, ahead of such ambitious and influential men as Van Bittner, his one-time tutor.

It was a good union when Lewis took office. It had over 400,000 members. In the war, the miners had distinguished themselves in bitter strikes, especially in the Alabama fields, where the union spent over $2,000,000 trying to crack the open shop. The UMWA conventions voted against compulsory military training and conscription of labor, while pledging at the same time, “unqualified support to President Wilson’s policies.” In these actions and contradictions, Lewis was just one among many. While he devoted some energy to the “war effort,” there is little doubt that much more of the abilities of the up-and-coming labor leader were spent in maneuvering for the presidency and in studying the coal mining industry until he became an acknowledged expert in the field.

In politics, the new president of the United Mine Workers was a staunch Republican. In his philosophy, a typical pragmatist, the “practical” trade union leader. Marriage to a well-read school teacher served to increase his intellectual interests. He became the best read labor leader in America, thoroughly familiar with the classics and history. His drive to power in the United Mine Workers revealed what psychologists would term “a Napoleonic complex.” It was discernible in every action of the young union leader who was convinced of his rôle as leader of men, and it was a role he immensely enjoyed. All in all, a unique, impressive and dangerous figure.

It would be impossible to find a single unionist of the day who would have mentioned Lewis in the same breath with the giants of that epoch, Gene Debs and Bill Haywood, both of whom won imperishable fame as unflinching fighters for the emancipation of the working class. The Russian revolution left a deep impression on them, and inspired countless thousands of workers in America. But to John L. Lewis it was a terrible nightmare. And he was to make an odious record in his brutal defense of “American principles” against the “Communists seeking to undermine the foundations of the government.” Lewis’ philosophy, his appeal to the employers, was this: “Grind men under the employer’s heel, and you invite communism. Give the men a square deal and you take out an insurance policy against it.” In this basic tenet Lewis has not changed. His belief in “liberal capitalism” is stronger than ever.

It took the coal crisis and the struggles of the United Mine Workers against the ravages of unemployment, low wages and insecurity to unfold the Lewis philosophy, to test the principles of unionism and politics he had learned from Samuel Gompers. Coal Age, the official magazine of the coal operators, referred to the strikes of the miners as revolutions, and to Lewis as a dictator. The 1919 strike was hardly compromised when the impact of post-war depression shook the entire union. And the 1921 strike became inevitable. The howls of the press against the UMWA were as loud as those which we heard last fall during the captive coal mine strike. Congress passed a resolution supporting President Wilson’s blast at the miners in declaring any strike “illegal.” Lewis replied exactly as he did 20 years later to Roosevelt: “Wilson is usurping powers not given him.” Federal troops and national guardsmen marched to the coal mines. But the miners struck. Lewis, however, retreated amid shouts of “capitulator.” In 1941 the coal miners struck and stayed there. Lewis stood firm. The coal strikers won!

A Bitter Factional Struggle

The differences between Lewis and the progressives during the 1921 strike merely marked the first major clash. A life-and-death factional struggle without parallel in labor history occupied the next ten years of the miners’ union. It was an inevitable struggle. And inevitably a bitter, cruel and ruthless struggle. For the United Mine Workers Union was born and developed in struggle. The coal barons were “uncivilized Tom Girdlers.” The strike struggles bred a type of union unmatched anywhere. Perhaps the best CIO militants today approach them. The UMWA had organized Negroes and whites together, had fought all racial discrimination. It was based on industrial unionism. It had built up a fairly democratic tradition and procedure. It was in a basic industry and the fact that its principles and policies made it a CIO “twenty years ahead of the rest of the industrial workers,” put it in direct conflict with the industrial rulers of America at all times. It was, in a sense, predestined by circumstances to be the storm center of the American labor movement.

Combine these factors with the chaotic conditions flowing from the post-war depression in the coal industry, its “overproduction,” its staggering unemployment, its marginal mines operated like feudal sweatshops, and you can understand the history of the coal miners’ struggles. Out of this atmosphere of strike and misery arose hundreds of militants determined not only to build a powerful union movement but also to build a new society, socialism, which would replace the hell of capitalism.

If all the major battles which established the CIO were put together they would perhaps begin to compare in scope and violence with the struggles of the coal miners in the post-war period. The saga of the miners’ fights are rich indeed. The Mingo County March, bloody Herrin, bloody Harlan, the anthracite strike – to mention a few. To most CIO unionists these are just names. To old-timers and coal miners they are sacred names, imperishable memories of battlefields where men fought and starved and died by the scores so that unionism might triumph! Nowadays unionism too often means only wages, hours and working conditions. For the coal miners it was a life and death question, a way of life. For a coal miner to be called a good union man was highest praise.

And when something or someone “wasn’t union,” it was just too bad.

Gompersism Was Not “Workable”

The craft unions comprising the main stream of the AFL during this period did not face this kind of basic conflict. Gompers’ philosophy could “work” among skilled workers whom the employers were willing, to some extent, to deal with and pay good wages to, at the expense of the unskilled masses. The Matthew Wolls, William Hutchesons and company did not face the situation that John L. Lewis met. In a major industry, in an industrial union movement, Gompersism was not “workable” if the union was to progress. It took Lewis ten years of struggle to learn this elementary fact about unionism. It partly explains why Lewis after 1934 took the road of industrial unionism in mass production industries while his AFL colleagues clung to the ghost of Gompers.

Lewis outlined his Gompers Program in the book, The Miners Fight for an American Standard. He combined the economics of Adam Smith with the trade unionism, “pure and simple,” of the father of the AFL in this tract. He scorned the theories of Karl Marx and ridiculed Marx’s followers as “revolutionary idealists, impractical visionaries.” He fought savagely against the left-wing in his union which sought to replace the credo of Gompers with the ideas that later became the foundation ideas of the CIO movement. At times Lewis fought against the coal barons who refused his co-operation, but more often than not his heaviest blows fell on the militants. As a result the union suffered more than one “Little Steel” strike fiasco and massacre.

At every turn of events opposition leaders arose by the score to oppose the policies and leadership of Lewis. They fought the man they called “Mussolini” on trade union questions, but his knowledge of the industry, his ruthless methods, his imperiousness to all criticism, blows and defeats, together with his skill in machine politics, kept him in power. The internal struggle weakened the union and its gradual decline brought fresh ammunition to the oppositionists. There was Alex Howatt, the splendid militant from Kansas, John Brophy, William Mitch, Powers Hapgood, William Turnblazer and Ray Edmundson. These and others rose to challenge Lewis and his machine. They won elections but never took office, for the ballots usually disappeared. They rallied the ranks behind them, but the conventions were packed. Progressives were slugged, or terrified, or forced to capitulate openly. In this period Lewis was described as “the King of Labor Racketeers” by Oscar Ameringer, the Adam Coaldigger of the American Guardian, and a long-time favorite weekly radical newspaper among the miners.

Lewis Discovers a “Communist” Plot

Lewis discovered a “Communist plot to seize the reins of government through control of the United Mine Workers.” He roared at William Z. Foster, Communist Party trade union director, sitting in the galleries at a miners’ convention, that they’d never win. What conventions! Fist fights, general melees, autocratic rulings. “May the chair state you may shout until you meet each other in hell, and he won’t change the rule,” Lewis bellowed at protesting delegates at one convention. Purge after purge followed in local unions “dominated by Moscow elements.” The triumvirate of Lewis, Murray and Kennedy ruled at all costs. But the president out-shined his collaborators: ruthless fighting ability and bureaucratic methods were two distinct characteristics of “Big Boy,” as his henchmen called him.

By 1927 the once powerful United Mine Workers, torn asunder and weakened in incessant battles with the coal operators, was but a thin shadow of the giant of 1919. The mistakes made by the left wing in the forming of the independent union, the National Miners Union, following the save-the-union campaign, saved the day for Lewis. He was to prove too strong even for the Progressive Miners of America, which was formed of a large split in Illinois. Court actions supporting the UMWA, disillusionment among the miners, division in the new union and the disintegration of the industry itself, which made a good contract almost impossible for anyone to obtain, finished off the Progressive Miners Union. Today it remains but a skeleton opposition and William Green’s voice in the coal industry.

The 1929 crash blasted away a thousand and one illusions about permanent American prosperity and the value of Adam Smith’s theories, which millions along with John L. Lewis had held. Lewis was forced to recognize the “dog eat dog” nature of capitalism and the miserable failure of his friend, Herbert Hoover, President of the United States. The coal operators had become integral parts of the steel and railroad dynasties. Compromise and cooperation wasn’t in their language, even to the savior of American principles, John L. Lewis. His “practical politics approach” had resulted in a “reward your enemies and punish your friends” policy.

These were bitter years for John L. Lewis, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Could he forget how his own union failed to support his bid to replace Gompers as president of the AFL? Or the stinging criticisms of the left wing contained in an admirable brochure entitled Misleaders of Labor, by William Z. Foster? Or the fact that his pride and joy, the United Mine Workers, was down to a miserable 60,000 members? And the AFL was lending it money. Nor could he dismiss the arrogance and contempt which the triumphant open shop coal operators hurled at him and the Miners Union!

“I Live for Today”

The lessons of these cruel defeats were not entirely lost on John L. Lewis. Quite the contrary! For he grudgingly admitted as much, in a half-hearted apology for his black record in the semi-official biography written by Cecil Carnes. “I don’t give a hang about what happened yesterday. I live for today and tomorrow. I will say only this: it takes every man some time to find himself in this world, to decide what he wants to do with his life. It took me longer than most.” Lewis said this in 1936, when the CIO was pushing forward. Nevertheless, the past cannot be erased from the records of labor history, nor can the character and philosophy of a man trained for twenty years in a particular way be suddenly altered.

When Philip Murray talked to him about Franklin Roosevelt, Democratic candidate for President, Lewis listened, but without great enthusiasm. However, the wave of revolt which swept the nation and became channelized into the New Deal was not overlooked by Lewis. Quickly sensing the possibilities of staging a real comeback, Lewis utilized his “support” of Roosevelt to press for the adoption of a national industrial recovery program in which unionism was to be an integral part. The working class was highly stirred and flocked into labor unions. While others faltered in the AFL, Lewis put on an organizing campaign which resulted in the return of 400,000 miners to the United Mine Workers. The master opportunist seized at every possible advantage. “The name is Lewis ... John L.” became a thundering voice of labor in Washington, where panicky industrialists and timid congressmen shuddered at the social crisis and the abyss caused by the 1929 economic crisis.

The Fight for Industrial Unions

The rest of the AFL leadership remained true to the ideas of Gompers. When hundreds of thousands of steel, auto and rubber workers flooded the AFL, the executive council hesitated, backwatered and finally sold them down the river in a series of fake agreements with the industries. They sought to divide the industrial workers into craft unions! Only Lewis, in the AFL hierarchy, had learned the lesson of the post-war years. If the United Mine Workers was to survive this time, it must have national labor support, a huge industrial union movement which could meet “the Mellons and the Morgans as equals.”

Would John L. Lewis, the black-hearted reactionary, support industrial unionism, the dream of the left wing? It was hardly believable. And many critical articles said so! Lewis spoke for industrial unionism in the mass production industries at the 1934 AFL convention. His resolution lost by a close vote. In 1935, Lewis crossed the Rubicon. He formed the Committee for Industrial Organization and began financing progressive movements within AFL unions in auto, steel and rubber, i.e., those which sought to establish independent international industrial unions. When the Akron rubber workers struck at Goodyear early in 1936, the CIO supported them. Industrial unionism won its first major victory!

The tide that swept the country in the form of sit-down strikes was not John L. Lewis’ doing. But he had learned enough to “tolerate” sit-down strikes, even though the press cried, in the ancient Lewis refrain, “outlaw and illegal strikes.” The United Mine Workers poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the CIO organizing campaigns. Its union veterans became CIO directors, organizing everything they could lay their hands on, while the AFL craft unions shook in their boots and finally expelled the “insurgent CIO.” But the CIO was irrevocably on the march.

Of course, Lewis was hailed by his allies as the Samson or Lincoln of the labor movement. He was emancipating labor. His past history was glossed over, especially by that school of journalists trained in the degenerated Communist Party. Once again the Wall Street Journal, Coal Age and the New York Times warned gravely of a John L. Lewis dictatorship over industry in America. It was the period of the Roosevelt-Lewis honeymoon, when Roosevelt was denouncing the “economic royalists” and Lewis blasted the “industrial tycoons seeking to stop the wave of humanity.”

At last, however the ruthless fighting quality of John L. Lewis were turned in the right direction: against the powerful industrial rulers of America. The U.S. Steel Corp. signed an agreement with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee; auto was organized; the CIO went forward! To be sure, the CIO unions organized directly by Lewis henchmen leaned too heavily on maneuvers at the top. Organizing committees were set up in place of independent international unions, except in the auto and rubber sections. Lewis, the bureaucrat of the old days, had softened, but had not changed fundamentally.

American labor found a new and powerful personality in the long overlooked Lewis. Who could forget his trip to Detroit during the General Motors strike when he staked the future of the young CIO movement on a victory? “Let there be no moaning at the bar when I put out to sea,” he told the Washington press, revealing both his plans and his erudition. His histrionic abilities were used to full advantage. And the mighty voice theretofore used to heap scorn on the left wing now roared at the industrialists. Busily occupied with the sit-down strikes and unionization, the workers and their enemies alike failed to pay attention to the first signs of friction between Lewis and Roosevelt which developed in the General Motors strike. Roosevelt wanted the sit-down strikers ordered back to work before negotiations began. Lewis wanted assurances of an agreement. The sit-down strikers, tasting of their strength, demanded victory before returning to work.

The Friendship Begins to Cool Off

Roosevelt’s request had startled Lewis. After all, Lewis had obtained, support of the auto workers for Roosevelt’s re-election in 1936 by threatening to withhold organizing funds until the foundation convention of the UAW had repudiated a resolution previously passed denouncing all capitalist politicians and calling for the formation of a labor party.

In addition, Lewis had organized Labor’s Non-Partisan League, which spent over $500,000 to re-elect Roosevelt. He had supported Governor Davey in Ohio, Townsend in Indiana, Earle in Pennsylvania and other “Roosevelt men.” While Lewis felt that the League was a sort of left wing in the Democratic Party, his reliance on the bankrupt politicians was very strong. When the heat was turned on during the Little Steel strike, each of these “friends of labor” double-crossed Lewis, and the Little Steel strike was turned into the first major defeat of the CIO. The climax came at Chicago in the form of the Memorial Day Massacre. Roosevelt’s rejection of a plea for support from Lewis was couched in the following nonchalant declaration: “A plague on both your houses.” Lewis grumbled about ingratitude; their friendship cooled.

The UMWA executive committee even passed a resolution condemning the Administration without mentioning Roosevelt by name. Relations were not improved when the President sought to prevent the miners from striking to win a genuine national agreement in 1939, one which would compel the coal operators in the South and other “feudal” regions to deal with the union. At that time, the breach between Roosevelt and Lewis was very noticeable and Lewis hinted broadly that he would support a Republican in 1940 against Roosevelt. But few CIO unionists believed that the collision would lead to an irreparable break.

In each of the issues around which the White House and Lewis clashed, Lewis stood squarely on union rights and for the protection of the best interests of the CIO. However, his Stalinist allies were so busy plying the theory and practice of the Popular Front that the issues became blurred to the CIO ranks. Lewis’ previous praise for FDR placed him in an awkward position to open a struggle against him within the labor movement. Lewis, the union leader, had learned enough to stubbornly defend the union movement. Lewis, the politician, had no answer. His dilemma was painfully evident.

The transformation of the New Deal into the War Deal intensified the antagonism between Lewis, seeking to safeguard the CIO, and Roosevelt, determined to bring the union movement into the war machine. Concessions to labor became few and finally ceased. Time and again, Lewis lashed out at Roosevelt, but his attacks missed fire. His bureaucratic approach in building the CIO, his failure to educate the union ranks, his opportunism in support of Roosevelt, backfired. The question of whether Roosevelt or Lewis would dominate the top leadership of the CIO became more acute. Lewis, remembering the post-war period, feared the foreign policies of Roosevelt, which he knew meant involvement in the Second World War. For this reason Lewis began a campaign “against the statesmen who spend nights dreaming of foreign adventures instead of solving problems at home.” Lewis had in mind, for example, the problem of unemployment.

Lewis’ deal with the Stalinists boomeranged. In 1939 and 1940, during the period of the Stalin-Hitler pact, the Stalinists had a line which coincided with Lewis’, thereby postponing his previous plan to purge them. But the Hitler attack on Russia brought about another switch in their line. They began to wave a patriotic flag and denounced their “leader” in the American labor movement.

Reason for Lewis’ Defeat

The speeches of John L. Lewis during the pre-1940 election period indicated that he was considering two possibilities: formation of a third party or support of a Republican candidate. His blasts at poll-tax politicians became sharper. He addressed the Townsend Old Age Pension convention, bidding for their support and making a private deal with its leaders. And he sought the backing of the auto workers union at its St. Louis convention by a belligerent speech against conscription and the follies of war. His own waverings, his failure to make a class appeal directly and openly to the CIO, and the labyrinth of capitalist politics to which he had tied the CIO previously, worked to defeat him. He fumbled about politically at a time when a clear-cut decision and action for a labor party was vital.

Caught in this dilemma, Lewis turned a somersault and endorsed Wendell Willkie – a major blunder! For, while the CIO ranks were restless and uneasy about the Roosevelt Administration, they could never be sold on the party of Herbert Hoover. The 1940 elections clearly revealed the limits of Lewis’ development during the CIO days. He was bound hand and foot to bourgeois politics. His beliefs in the social system of capitalism blinded him to the political realities and requirements of the day. The “liberalization” of John L. was a very limited one, indeed.

This tragic error cost Lewis the leadership of the CIO. He gambled for it during the 1940 elections and he accepted the loss. (In the old days he would have slugged his way into retaining his hold over the CIO organization and could have successfully done so at the 1940 CIO convention.) The reign of John L. Lewis as undisputed director of the CIO was over. Phillip Murray, the Roosevelt man and colleague of Lewis, replaced him as president of the CIO. Of course, the superficial critics of Lewis and the war-mongering elements saw this defeat as the end of the career of the founder of the CIO. Too soon, however, much too soon! They forgot that Lewis had established a powerful base in his own union, partly because the dictatorial constitution of other days gave him vast powers and partly because the United Mine Workers had obtained good contracts for its members. The union had over 600,000 members covered by nation-wide agreements, including the Harlan and Alabama areas. Wage rates were higher than ever before, no wage differentials existed between the Northern and Southern areas, safety standards and other protections were won for the coal diggers. The UMWA had the best contracts in America, embracing closed shop agreements.

The first major test for John L. Lewis after his resignation as CIO president and removal as its policy-maker was the captive coal mine strike of autumn 1940. Here he demonstrated that he stood four-square on the program of the early militant CIO, while other CIO leaders hesitated or retreated before the anti-labor offensive which developed with the war drive. The undisguised threats of the Roosevelt Administration panicked the rest of the CIO leadership, but they were contemptuously ignored by Lewis. “You can’t dig coal with bayonets,” he said, taking a leaf from the left wing in the 1919 strike, who were faced with federal troops. The miners stood with their president against the White House on this issue. As long as Lewis defends the rights of the UMWA, his regime is reasonably secure.

The outbreak of the war served, among other things, to demonstrate once more the limitation of Lewis. He had successfully espoused the industrial union movement ideal of Gene Debs and Bill Haywood. But he completely lacked their political understanding, their irreconcilable hatred of the system oi capitalism. Quietly and without fanfare, Lewis passed up an opportunity to earn himself an unforgettable and historic place among working class leaders. Lewis stopped at the point of “isolationist” fear and doubts about the imperialist war!

This typically opportunist action of John L. Lewis, however did not serve to earn him peace or friendship at the White House, in which, by the way, he is not greatly interested. Total war demands total support from a key labor figure like Lewis. This is extremely unlikely since Lewis has indicated both in his pre-war and since our entrance that he doubts very much the value and purpose of the present imperialist struggle, and that he is preparing for the post-war period. In his St. Louis speech, Lewis showed that he had a fair glimpse of what a post-war chaos loomed before America. And Lewis has not given up his ambitions to lead 30,000,000 organized workers and perhaps – it is a prospect – find himself in the Presidency of the United States. How Lewis obtained the “Presidency buy” is revealingly told in Mr. Carnes’ book, following his lengthy interviews with the UMWA president in 1936.

His “war of nerves” in the CIO today is part of that grand strategy. Unlike other CIO leaders, Lewis has not come out for surrendering union overtime standards. He views this question, and others, with an eye to post-war reactions of the workers. His drive to organize the dairy farmers is another important tactic in this long range campaign. Opportunist and pragmatist to the core, Lewis will try to utilize every situation and event to serve his general aims. Perhaps the 1944 elections will be ripe for his type of a “third party.” Or, maybe another deal will be possible! Lewis doesn’t know which it might be. (Our hope is that the break from the two major parties occurs, because this would provide the most fertile field for agitation for an independent labor party.) A major consideration in Lewis’ political strategy is the recovery of power and influence in the labor movement. (The growing antagonism between elementary CIO aims and the Roosevelt Administration policies, such as the “freeze wages” issue, works well with Lewis’ plans.) Or perhaps another plunge into building an independent labor movement out of the rapidly growing District 50 of the UMWA. Lewis has not settled this question, since he awaits circumstances and their effects, and that is why prognostication on this score is purely journalistic speculation. But in all these maneuvers and activities, one thing stands out clearly: Lewis is building his fences everywhere, politically and organizationally.

A Powerful Factor for 1944

Unless unforeseen circumstances intervene, John L. Lewis is going to be a powerful factor in 1944 politics, too powerful to dismiss or ignore. One of his most bitter critics, a very astute Washington labor journalist, recently remarked: “Lewis is the only smart man in Washington. He knows what he wants, and he’s got them all scared.” His admonitions not to believe the junk he was writing about Lewis for an anti-Lewis paper were likewise revealing and should serve to warn those people who tend to believe the headlines of today’s heavily censored and biased press. Is it any wonder that Washington suffers a bad case of “Lewis jitters”? Or that the miserable mediocrities in the CIO leadership fear him? It took all of Roosevelt’s prestige and power to save them when Lewis recently pulled a masterful stroke in calling for labor unity between the CIO and AFL. The only CIO leader somewhat approximating Lewis in ability is his one-time associate, Phil Murray, whose gyrations these days between the Stalinists, Roosevelt, and his old ties doom him to the rôle of a Hamlet. By the time this article appears, Murray’s future will be quite clearly indicated in the results of the convention of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee.

Each time the stage of world history turns, Lewis has been cast in a different light! In the period of world revolutionary struggles, he was a black shadow. In the period of dark reaction, his insistence on industrial unionism in open shop America, together with his limited personal progress, gave him the spotlight in the progressive wing of the labor movement. Faced with a basic choice between class politics and class collaborationist policies, Lewis flopped badly. When the entire labor bureaucracy capitulated completely before the war drive, Lewis cautiously distinguished himself from the others by holding to the aims of the early CIO. His stature as a trade unionist grew. In politics, his limitations are those of the whole CIO. For “CIOism” at its best can no more solve the historic tasks of the working class than Gompersism could in its heyday. Fortunately, “CIOism” provides the working class with a much stronger base of operation. Fascism can never triumph in America while labor’s millions effectively protect their industrial unions.

Signposts of the Future

What the future holds in store for John L. Lewis depends primarily on the turn of world events. A long war, unbroken by revolutionary struggles, will tend to increase his power and influence as long as he continues on the path of defending, in his own way to be sure, the UMWA and the labor movement from strangulation. His unique abilities and his strength in the UMWA assure him of a constantly important rôle. His policies, irrespective of subjective desires, tend to keep the sparks of class struggle alive today. In his lifetime Lewis’ power rested on his base in the working class. That is why, incidentally, his “isolationism” has a different content than that of capitalist politicians like Wheeler. It rests pn a different class base. Theirs is the bewilderment of the petty bourgeoisie, fearful of world events, containing latent fascist tendencies. Lewis’ views reflect the suspicions, distrust and fears of the workers in the present world struggle, which take on an “isolationist” character.

Tomorrow, as yesterday, Lewis must depend on the organized labor movement becoming stronger in order that he may remain a power. Anyone studying the man’s history or having had personal experiences with him cannot doubt that in the stormy times ahead, Lewis is easily capable of holding his own against his present adversaries. The man is here to stay, in influence and power, until the day when the workers themselves tackle the main job. In that epoch Lewis will be finished, for nothing in his character, ideas or career suggest that he is capable of a fundamental change.

Meanwhile, “Big Boy is on the march again,” as his henchmen say. “And he gets what he goes after,” they add, thereby explaining, among other things, why Lewis keeps a powerful machine around him. (It is not solely jobs, but the feeling that Lewis is THE leader that keeps his machine largely intact.) Where the march will lead, we must repeat, depends on the roads that world developments open up. And which road Lewis will take is predetermined by the man’s limited character, ideas and program, as here outlined.

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