ON a hot summer morning in 1947, I was a small boy following my father to the only general store in our worn-out mining town in southern Iowa. My father was talking to a bulky-shouldered, shaggy white-haired man. I had never quite seen a face such as his. Even as he laughed and told stories about working in the Big Hill mines with my grandfather, I heard my father speaking to him in a hushed and awe-stricken way. ``Is this your Dad?'' he asked me and I nodded yes. He tousled my hair, winked at me in the indulgent manner of adults skilled at teasing children, and added, ``He ain't much good is he?''
I retreated behind my father's knees, too shy to yell out ``Probably better than you.'' As he left laughing, my father spoke to me with a reverence I never heard him use before, ``That was a great man we were talking to; that was John L. Lewis.''
It was John L. Lewis, back in his hometown to bask in the uncomplicated affection of old friends. In the rest of America, John was received with more complex feelings. The town was Lucas, Iowa. Lewis was born there on Lincoln's birthday in 1880. Then, the town was a booming coal camp composed mainly of Welsh miners. When the coal operators attempted to cut the miners' wages in half, the Knights of Labor organized a strike against the coal company, and Tom Lewis, John's father, was blacklisted by the coal operators throughout the state.
In the next dozen years, the Lewis family moved from town to town in southern Iowa seeking work. They were always on the brink of hunger. Eventually, they returned to Lucas, where young John L. Lewis worked in the mines as a mule driver. There, he started other ventures as well. He managed the local opera house and gave himself roles in Shakespearean dramas.
In 1903, working in the west, he helped pull out the bodies of several of the more than 200 miners who died in an explosion at Hannah, Wyom. It was there, as one writer put it, that John L. Lewis was baptized in his tears. They were tears of rage, and Lewis was never to be shaken in his belief that American working people were bullied, abused, and unfairly treated. Moving to Illinois in 1908, Lewis quickly rose to positions of power in the United Mine Workers of America. During his 40-year tenure as president of the union, American miners gained more in wages, medical benefits, pensions, and safety conditions then ever before in their history.
It was Lewis's push to organize the unskilled industrial workers which gave rise to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s. Hundreds of thousands of steel, rubber, and auto workers saw Lewis as the savior of the labor movement. Nevertheless, when he pulled the coal miners out on strike for a short time during World War II, he was called the second most hated man in America by Time Magazine (his only competitor being Adolf Hitler).
The stories and myths about this larger-than-life figure are legion. Some of them are even true. For example, John L. is credited with organizing a strike in his fifth grade class in school. Boys were required to bring in coal for the school stove. The fact that they were not paid for this labor did not seem just to young John and he convinced his classmates to go strike for wages. His teacher quickly moved to break the strike. She told him that she favored the right to strike, but that opponents should always discuss grievances before calling a strike.
Many of the stories about John L., center upon his use of his fists to settle conflicts. As a 12-year-old, he trashed a gang of bullies who terrorized his brothers as they sold newspapers. As a young man in the mines, he was forced to destroy a mule that tried to kill him, and then made it look like the death was from natural causes. Many years later, Lewis attacked the 300-pound president of the Carpenter's Union at a meeting of the American Federation of Labor. After being verbally abused by the other labor leader, Lewis cracked him on the chin, scattering chairs and winning the discussion.
Still, it was not Lewis's physical bravery which captured the imagination and loyalties of millions of working people. It was, among other things, his voice. In the 1930s and 1940s, John L. Lewis took to radio to press for labor reform. His basso profundo voice echoed that of an angry Old Testament prophet: ``If we must grind up human flesh and bones in the modern industrial machine we call modern America, then before God I assert that those who consume the coal and those who benefit from that service owe protection to those men and security to their families when they die. I say it, I proclaim it and I care not, who in heaven or hell opposes it.''
In his career, Lewis had supported Democrats, Republicans, and potential organizers of a labor party. He worked with Franklin Roosevelt and feuded with him. His tactics in the labor movement were often less than democratic. Still, history and the memories of working people smile on John L. Lewis. He had done something no one else had done so well.
Lewis spoke for the working people and the industrial slaves of his time. His strength and the sarcastic invective against the defenders of wealth were music to the ears of the numberless working poor in the America of the '30s. No one else spoke with such power or got more for working folks than John L. Lewis. He told off the big boys and got away with it. Because of that, his followers were eager to forgive his missteps and sins.
His remedy for powerless people stands the test of time. He said it often and he said it until the day he died: ``Organize.''