John L. Lewis in DC: 1935-69
John L. Lewis, the controversial leader of the United Mine Workers of America and the driving force behind the founding of the CIO that organized millions of workers into unions in the 1930s, was also provocative while he lived in Alexandria, Virginia.

After serving as statistician and then as vice-president for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), Lewis became that union's acting president in 1919. On November 1, 1919, he called the first major coal union strike, as 400,000 miners walked off their jobs.

It was the first of many strikes he would call. His politics were ill defined. He fought a violent battle against communists and other leftists during the 1920s, but reconciled in the 1930s when he led the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) that organized millions of previously unionized industrial workers.

Lewis in the Washington, D.C. area

He moved to Washington, D.C. in the fall of 1935, purchasing the home of Revolutionary War doctor William Brown at 212 South Fairfax Street in Alexandria, Virginia. In 1937, he bought another historic home--Col. Richard Brand Lee, a first cousin of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at 614 Oronoco Street in Alexandria. The Lee house had housed 37 members of the Lee family over time.

Lewis’ purchase of the historic homes sparked a protest where one woman refused to show her historic home in an annual tour in 1937 because Lewis was opening his Fairfax Street home to the tour. Lewis’s Oronoco Street home was picketed by students in 1943 over the mine strike during World War II.

Lewis also led the purchase and renovation of the University Club at 900 15th Street NW, Washington, D.C. in 1937 to serve as the headquarters of the UMWA. The building is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Reverses course on the CIO

But despite his leading the establishment of the CIO, he just as quickly he his union out of the CIO and back to the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

He was an isolationist who backed Republican Wendall Wilkie of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 election and refused to heed calls for a no-strike pledge during World War II—leading a nationwide 1943 strike that cause Roosevelt to seize the mines.

He broke again with the AFL in 1947, refusing to sign a loyalty oath as required by the recently passed Taft-Harley Act and as a result the UMWA went without the protections of the National Labor Relations Act.

He continued to serve as UMWA president until 1960 and died at his Alexandria, Virginia home in 1969.

The UMWA was the first major union to admit African Americans on an equal basis and won significant gains for coal miners in wages, benefits and safety.
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