Rise Of John L. Lewis Started In Panama, IL Mine
By Allan H. Keith
One of the most powerful - and controversial - labor leaders in U.S. history once lived in Panama, located on the Bond-Montgomery county line.
The fiery and flamboyant John L. Lewis was a coal miner in Panama in the early part of this century.
He lived in Panama from 1909 to 1915. Even then he was active on the local level in the United Mine Workers Union.
Just after moving from Panama to Springfield his union career skyrocketed. Within two years, in 1917, he was named national vice president of the union.
Then in 1919 he became acting president of the national union and he was elected president in 1920.
Information about Lewis' years in Panama is included in a doctoral dissertation completed several years ago at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale by Bill Hollada of Mattoon.
Hollada wrote that after Lewis moved to Panama in 1909 he held several jobs in the Panama coal mine, including mule driver. He was elected president of the union local in 1910 and also was a one-man - and apparently quite effective - grievance committee.
In beginning his move up the union ladder he had support from several brothers who worked at the Panama mine. Hollada wrote that the brothers "formed a powerful clique, which amid some verbal and physical encounters, took over much of the operation of the local union."
One reason Lewis moved from Lucas, Iowa to Panama was that his brother George, who had lived in the mining area south of Danville, had moved to work in the rather new mine at Panama.
Hollada said he believes that as many as five Lewis brothers at one time worked at the Panama mine.
John L. Lewis moved with his wife to a corner house a block north of the cemetery in the south part of Panama, according to Hollada.
Lewis and his wife had three children, two of them born in Panama. Margaret Mary, born in Panama in 1909, died of pneumonia in 1917 at the age of seven. Florence Kathryn was born in Panama on April 14, 1911. She graduated from Bryn Mawr, the exclusive women's college in Philadelphia, and worked for many years in key positions with the United Mine Workers Union. She never married and died in 1962 at the age of 50.
A son, John L. Jr., was born in Springfield in 1918 and became a physician and surgeon. He was never involved with union affairs and apparently had a rather strained relationship with his father.
John Sr. was a militant unionist and extremely outspoken. Hollada quotes one sympathetic Lewis biographer as describing Lewis' testimony before the Illinois state legislature this way:
"...like a mad bull, he raged and banged his fists on the rostrum. He did everything but personally promise physically to demolish each legislator. Intimidated, they passed bill after bill, including a workmen's compensation law."
Hollada wrote that he was unable to independently confirm specific testimony by Lewis before the state legislature, or that his influence was as critical to passage of the laws as was implied by his biographer.
In 1910, while in Panama, Lewis was elected as a state legislative agent for the union, and this included lobbying.
After becoming national president Lewis built the union into one of the strongest in the U.S.
He was influential in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Even as early as 1911, while in Panama, he had been elected a delegate to the national AFL convention. But in 1935 he helped found the rival Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). He supported Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s for president, but backed Republican Wendell Willkie who unsuccessfully opposed Roosevelt in 1940.
During World War II Lewis stirred the ire of many citizens by leading several coal strikes.
After the war he kept a somewhat lower public profile and retired as union president in 1960. He died at the age of 89 in 1969 and is buried in Oak Ridge cemetery at Springfield.