Iowa Produces a Labor Leader: John L. Lewis

A baby boy born in Cleveland, Iowa, in 1880 grew up to become a national labor leader. John L. Lewis grew up in a family of Iowa miners. His dad and grandfather worked for the Whitebreast Coal and Mining Company, the largest coal mining company in southern Iowa. His parents were active in unionizing activities. They moved around from one coal mining town to another in Iowa. His parents' activities must have influenced John's thinking. 

Although John held many different jobs—including newspaper boy, farmer, miner, amateur actor and theater manager, he found his strength in organizing miners. He joined the United Mine Workers (UMW) in 1900 when he was 20 years old. He quickly moved up the ranks of the union movement. In 1909 he became a lobbyist for the UMW at the Illinois state capital. In 1911 John was named an organizer for the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the largest labor federation in the world. In 1917 he was elected vice president of the UMW, followed in 1920 to the elected position of president.

In the 1928 U.S. presidential election, Lewis was a strong supporter of Herbert Hoover. After Hoover's victory, Lewis worked hard to obtain Hoover's endorsement as Secretary of Labor. Although many encouraged him to pick Lewis, Hoover chose someone else. Despite this Lewis supported Hoover again in the 1932 election.

During Franklin Roosevelt's administration, labor recovered from many of the setbacks that occurred during the 1920s and the early years of the Depression. In October 1835, after a disagreement with the AFL,  John broke his ties with the AFL and formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). By 1939 the CIO had surpassed the AFL in membership. In 1955 the two groups combined to become the AFL-CIO. John remained president of the UMW until 1960. The AFL-CIO continues to represent millions of workers in a variety of professions. 

A man with roots in Iowa became one of the most influential individuals in the country's labor movement. John L. Lewis, a man who grew up in a small Iowa town, impacted the lives of all of America's workers. 


  • Iowa Historical Moment Fact Sheet. State Historical Society of Iowa, 1991. 
  • Katharine House, “Labor in Iowa,” The Goldfinch 10, no. 3 (February 1989): 3-6.