An Uncertain Relationship:

John L. Lewis & FDR in 1937

 

Ryan Fagan
Class of 1998

John L. Lewis held many positions in the United Mine Workers, including the presidency from 1920 to 1960. He also worked as an organizer for the American Federation of Labor, but he later left it to help start the Congress of Industrial Organization. Afterward, Lewis was constantly debating to which organization the United Mine Workers should belong. At times, Lewis even wanted to return to the AFL . According to two of his biographers, "the year 1937 was undoubtedly the zenith of John L. Lewis's career" (Dubofsky and Van Time 280). 1937 was an especially tumultuous year for John L. Lewis. The General Motors and Little Steel strikes took place, and Lewis's once-harmonious relationship with President Roosevelt was deteriorating due in part to the President's neutral reaction to the strikes. FDR simply couldnít support the gigantic CIO in every action it took. Lewis was angered by the President's suddenly cool behavior and his inaction, although even neutrality was a statement in labor's favor considering that a significant portion of the country had a negative attitude toward unions and that presidents before him had often sided with management in such struggles. The FDR-Lewis relationship was one beyond explanation. At times they seemed to be working together, but the next day there would be a division. Lewis supported FDR's programs and his reelection. He expected support in return, but the labor leader didn't receive as much helpful legislation and strike support as he wanted, although the president's refusal to intervene in the strikes was much better than an injunction on the side of the management, which had been a tool of previous presidents, such as Cleveland. Still, in 1937, it must have seemed to Lewis that he was doing most of the work to preserve their alliance, and this certainly led to discontent on his part. In reality, their goals were much too different for them to work together successfully for a long period of time without disagreements. This was made clear in 1937.

In the presidential election of 1936, Lewis had helped Roosevelt garner votes; the result was a sweeping victory. So, Lewis wanted FDR to help him unionize industry in return. When the sit-down strikes took place at General Motors in January, Lewis wanted FDR to help settle the dispute, but FDR wouldnít intervene. This was the first real source of friction in their relationship. Although FDR wanted a peaceful settlement and recognition of the unions, he took no action . In the end, Lewis successfully negotiated an agreement between the strikers and management without Roosevelt's help. But in reality, FDR's nonaction helped the strikers. Past leaders, such as President Cleveland, had issued injunctions against the workers. In addition to the workers, the public was also calling for FDR's help , but he bucked the trend by doing nothing instead of helping the management. In many cases, public opinion was against the workers; in a letter to the editor of The New York Times, Hyacinthe Ringrose said higher wages and shorter hours would come naturally if employees worked hard. She thought that unions and strikes were totally wrong and that they would never work; she also criticized "high-salaried union demagogues," referring to Lewis and others. With much of the public feeling as Ringrose did, FDR's non-action was actually a brave act. He could have used his power to hinder the workers; instead, his impartiality spoke volumes as to his preference for the workers. However, this was not what John L. Lewis had hoped for when he supported FDR's campaign in 1936. So, Lewis was still angered because he thought the president owed him more than neutrality. Yet their relationship was still amicable on the surface, and perhaps in reality as well. The labor leader backed Roosevelt's attempt to "pack" the Supreme Court , continuing to support FDR as he always had.

The real breaking point was yet to come. In May and June, the Little Steel strikes took place. Bethlehem Steel, Republic, Inland, Youngstown Sheet and Tube (known collectively as Little Steel) were the only steel companies that had not yet recognized steel worker's unions. When Roosevelt refused to support the striking employees, a clear disagreement between Lewis and FDR was apparent to everybody for the first time. The Little Steel companies turned to violence in their attempts to end the strike. On June 29th, Roosevelt called for "a plague on both your houses," referring to labor and big business, specifically to Lewis and the CIO, as well as Little Steel. Nobody was really sure of Lewis's part in the Little Steel strike; in reality, he had nothing to do with its instigation. Still, in the end, this strike was a major defeat for the CIO as well as the cause of a rift between Lewis and Roosevelt, two of the most powerful people in the United States at the time. Lewis was left disappointed after his expectations of FDR's help came to nothing, and to many it seemed as if neither FDR nor Lewis had been able to handle the steel strike as it was spinning out of control. Some also thought that Lewis was too attached to the White House and FDR.

Over the summer, there were rumors of third parties. In July and August, and even later, many thought that Lewis was going to start a new third party . At times, he even propagated this talk, but at other times, he denied the rumors. Some people believed that Lewis and FDR were going to start their own party . On August 23rd, a group of Democrats alleged that Lewis and Roosevelt were plotting to control their party. The entire time, their relationship was unsure. Despite their harsh words, they seemed to be working together again ; Lewis even went before Congress to support Roosevelt's latest efforts, specifically a minimum wage/maximum hour bill. He also okayed FDR's appointment of Hugo Black to the Supreme Court But there was still disagreement at the root of their relationship.

On September 3rd, John L. Lewis gave a shocking speech that alarmed some in the White Houses as millions listened at home. It was seen as an attack on FDR ; in the speech, he assailed Roosevelt for his inaction in the Little Steel strike and his supposed indifference to workers. Some thought that Lewis was trying to control FDR, the government and others. But FDR didn't take it all that seriously. He understood the fact that Lewis was simply trying to tell him to help labor more because it was one of his greatest allies. Very soon after, it seemed like they had buried the hatchet. Although they would have many more disagreements, they worked them out for the most part and they worked together for several more years.

The relationship between Franklin D. Roosevelt and John L. Lewis was a complicated one: what the public saw was sometimes very different from reality. Sometimes they themselves didnít know why the other took the actions he did. Both tried to use the other to get what he wanted. But, since a rather large proportion of the population during the 1930's was anti-unionization and anti-strikes, FDR was leading the nation in a time when Presidential nonaction was a very strong statement in favor of labor. Still, Lewis had hoped for much more in return for his actions as a staunch Roosevelt supporter and as a "kingmaker," as Carlisle, one political cartoonist of the times, had called him. But, although they often disagreed, no matter what they were doing, most of the time both Lewis and FDR acted with the good of the citizens of the United States (as each saw it) at heart.

 

Bibliography

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"Auto Industry." Newsweek, (January 9, 1937), 9.

Berryman. "C.I.O. Labor Parade!" Washington Star (September 6, 1937) The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 23.

Berryman. "The Cheer-Leader." Washington Star (August 17, 1937) The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 23.

Brown, Web. "More Wings Over Washington." New York Herald-Tribune (September 6, 1937) The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 23.

"CANDIDATE: I Am For. . ." Newsweek, (July 3, 1937), 9.

"Capitol Hill Cool To Lewis Proposal." The New York Times, LXXXVI (September 4, 1937), 1.

Carlisle. "A Kingmaker Calls On The President." Springfield Republican (January 25, 1937) The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential ;Library, Box 20.

Carlisle. "The Problem Child." Des Moines Register (June 23, 1937) The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 22.

"Carnegie Steel Signs C.I.O. Contract For Pay Raise, 40-Hr. Week, Recognition; Deadlock On Naval Orders." The New York Times, LXXXVI (March 3, 1937), 1.

Cook, Roy. Leaders of Labor. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1966.

"Deadlock At Detroit." Time, (February 15, 1937), 19.

Derber, Milton, and Edwin Young, ed. Labor and the New Deal. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1961.

Ding. "Are You Coming Along?" Springfield News and Leader (August 1, 1937) The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 23.

Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Warren Van Tine. John L. Lewis: A Biography. New York: New York Times Book Co., 1977.

Egli. "Buddies Again?" Columbus State Journal (September 17, 1937) The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 23.

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Finley, Joseph E.. The Corrupt Kingdom. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

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Homan, He. "More Than He Bargained For?" Trenton Times (July 15, 1937) The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 22.

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Johnson, Herbert. "Opening the 1937 Season By Throwing Out The Umpire." Saturday Evening Post (April 24,1937) The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 21.

"Lewis & The Lion." Time, (March 15, 1937), 16.

"Lewis ëExposed.í" Newsweek, (December 6,1937), 15.

"Lewis Suffers, Signs, And Turns On Steel; General Motors And The Sit-Downers Go Back To Work." Newsweek, (February 20, 1937), 13.

"Lewis Warns The President To Back C.I.O. Or Face Bolt." The New York Times, LXXXVI (September 4, 1937), 1.

"Open-Shop Steel Opens A Door To Lewis And C.I.O.: Carnegie-Illinois ëPolicy Of Bargainingí Surprises Industry." Newsweek, (March 6, 1937), 7.

Orr. "A Great Disappointment." Chicago Tribune (July 12, 1937) The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 22.

"Peace & Automobiles." Time, (February 22, 1937), 13.

Post, Robert P. "Both Sides Erred In Recent Strikes, Roosevelt Says." The New York Times, LXXXVI (September 5, 1937),1.

Ringrose, Hyacinthe. "Opposed To Labor Agitation." The New York Times, LXXXVI (March 2, 1937), 20.

Scott, Quincy. "Never Thought Heíd Try To Collect!" Portland Oregonian (January 29, 1937) The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 20.

Seibel, Fred O. "Have They Buried The Hatchet?" Richmond Times Dispatch (September 18, 1937) The Basil O'Connor Collection, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, Box 23.

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Stark, Louis. "A.F. of L. Declares For War To Finish In C.I.O.'s Fields." The New York Times, LXXXVI (May 26, 1937), 1.

Stark, Louis. "A.F. of L Prepares To Declare A War To Finish On C.I.O." The New York Times, LXXXVI (May 24,1937), 1.

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Evaluation

At first, I thought that the assignment was a little too vague and unclear, but I think that your new instructions are much easier to follow and more detailed than the previous set of directions. Also, since many people fell behind or had no idea what to do, the set due-dates for each step of the paper are a very good idea. Next year, I think that you should show several different works from this year on a wide variety topics so that the new students can get an even better idea of what they need to do. Also, I thought that it was a great help when you brought the microfilm from the Schenectady Public Library to the school; you should definitely do that again.

But, next year I think you should be more flexible on the requirements for resources. While it wasnít a problem for me, many people had trouble finding books on their topic, since it was fairly obscure. Perhaps these individuals could find more articles instead. I think that a sliding scale might be better for this project; for example, a student could have either 10 magazine articles and 5 books or 15 magazine articles and 2 books. This might make it easier for the students, but they would still find adequate information to write a good paper.

Overall, I thought that this was an interesting (if you choose your topic correctly) and worthwhile research project. It was different from anything I've ever done before.


Send comments to Paul Bachorz at PaulKB2T@aol.com.


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