“Workers have kept faith in American institutions. Most of the conflicts that have occurred have been when labor’s right to live has been challenged and denied.”
— John L. Lewis
Today is the birthday of John L. Lewis, who presided over the United Mine Workers of America for 40 years and set in motion organizing campaigns that resulted in the creation of the Steelworkers, the Auto Workers, the Communications Workers, the Utility Workers and other industrial unions.
Lewis’s Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which used creative tactics like sit-down strikes and “flying squadrons” to support strikers inside and outside plants, energized a generation of manufacturing workers and forced employers to negotiate better working conditions, higher pay, pensions and health care benefits – things we take for granted today.
Lewis was an impassioned speaker who struck fear in the hearts of coal barons and politicians as much as he commanded reverence from coal miners and other industrial workers he represented. Today, as Peabody and Arch Coal try to offload their responsibilities to miners, using the bankruptcy court and a shell company it created, Patriot Coal, Lewis would be in a full-throated roar in the streets of St. Louis, where the bankruptcy hearing is underway.
A few weeks back, hundreds of miners rallied outside the bankruptcy court and marched to Peabody headquarters where some joined UMWA President Cecil Roberts in an act of civil disobedience, sitting in the street and getting arrested. They are back tomorrow, Feb. 13, with more choice words for the robber barons.
Among the legacies of John L. Lewis is the UMWA Welfare and Retirement Fund, negotiated with the government to guarantee that mine operators provide health care for miners and their families. After all, miners had risked their health – and even their lives – working in the most dangerous conditions to ensure that the energy needs of a nation would be met, in war and in peace.
The UMWA Fund that Lewis created built eight hospitals in Appalachia and established numerous clinics, changing permanently health care delivery in the coalfields. Today not only are miners and their families facing devastation with the loss of their health care, but those communities – including doctors, nurses, technicians and other medical staff – are teetering on the brink of economic catastrophe.
The UMWA is engaged in literally a life-and-death struggle. Will our nation allow these communities to be abandoned and these families to be cheated out of their legacy? They deserve our support.