Joe Ozanic’s AFL challenges John Lewis’ CIO

Posted by | October 28, 2015

In this excerpt from interviews of coal miner Joseph Ozanic, Sr. (1895-1978), Ozanic discusses the conflict between the Progressive Miners of America (of which he was president) and John L. Lewis’ United Mine Workers of America. Interviews conducted by Rex Rhodes, 1972; Barbara Herndon and Nick Cherniavsky, 1974, and now in the collection of Norris L. Brookens Library /Archives/Special Collections / University of Illinois at Springfield.

After the 1932 mine war John Lewis moved United Mine Workers headquarters to Washington, obviously for the purpose of being very close to the national political scene. A lot of the extraordinary powers that he got onto himself through the packed convention of 1931–and he did get a lot of special favors–he got in Washington, at our expense.

The reported $650,000 that he donated to the political administration of 1936 gave him control or favors, from the National Labor Relations Board. The National Labor Relations Act was adopted by Congress in 1935 and confirmed by the Supreme Court in 1937. In 1936, John L. reportedly donated $650,000 in political contributions to the administration then in power; $650,000 that he sponged out of the treasury of the United Mine Workers without the consent of the rank and file who actually owned that money.

The National Labor Relations Board was set up and that board was clearly beholden to John L. Lewis at the expense of any other union that filed to get a representation election. And it gave him special favors under Madam Perkins, Secretary of the Department of Labor. Madam Perkins In turn, controlled the director for concilliation, Dr. John R. Steelman.

Dr. Steelman told me personally in Cincinnati during a convention of the American Federation of Labor, he said, “Joe, your union’s getting as rotten a deal as any group of workers have ever known in the history of labor in the United States, but I’m helpless. I’m under orders and supervision of Madam Perkins and the White House. I’ve got to do what they tell me to do.”

Joe Ozanic, president of Progressive Mine Workers, AFL

Original photo caption reads : AFL opens war on Lewis’ miners. The newly chartered Progressive Miners Union, American Federation of Labor organization, opened their office in Chicago today (May 5, 1938) as the first step in the AFL campaign against John L. Lewis’ CIO organization stronghold. Head of the new union is Joe Ozanic, appointed last week in Washington by William Green, AFL president. Photo shows Ozanic at his Chicago office. With him is his 19-year old daughter Evelyn, who is also his private secretary.


That was during the deadlock of the Appalachian wage negotiations being held in New York City in the 1930’s.

I was president of our International Union at the time and we had mines and miners and local unions organized all over West Virginia and Pennsylvania and Kansas, but the board consistently refused to process our petitions or conduct elections for representation.

In other words, under the act, a union competing with the United Mine Workers–or any union that wanted to gain representation rights over a group of workers-if the employer wouldn’t voluntarily recognize the petitioning union but questioned the union’s position, and if the union could prove it did in fact represent a majority of their employees, the operator or any other employer had one of three courses to follow in line with the NLRB rules.

Number one, they could conduct a payroll check and grant outright recognition to the union if it could prove that they had the required number of members wanting to be represented by the petitioning union as claimed.

If the employer chose not to go through a payroll check of the company payroll against applications and authorizations set forth in the petition by the union, they had as their second choice to voluntarily agree to a consent election, which meant that the employer with the union agrees to a consent election to be conducted by the National Labor Relations Board and let the parties be governed by the results of that secret ballot in an NLRB election.

Well, the National Labor Relations Board was a biased board, headed by chairman John Madden. And in our case, the miners all over the United States didn’t want John L.’s corrupt company union leadership nor the United Mine Workers, anymore than they wanted him in Illinois. In West Virginia, for example, we got not only a 30 percent minimum required at various mines, but as much as 60, 70, and 80 percent of the total workers in some 454 mines in West Virginia alone, including District Number 2, Pennsylvania.

And in every instance where we filed notice on coal operators that we now had a majority of your employees that desire to be represented in collective bargaining concerning hours, conditions, wages and so on, wanting to be represented by our union, we asked them, “Do you wish to consent to voluntarily recognize this new union, or do you prefer that we file with the National Labor Relations Board and then be governed by the results of an election conducted by the NLRB in line with the National Labor Relations Act?”

In every instance, the operators’ response was, “We can’t deal with your union because the contract we have with the United Mine Workers is a bar to an election.”

This occurred in every instance with the result that over 100,000 miners in the state of West Virginia were disenfranchised or denied the right to exercise their rights under a federal statute that gave them the right to be represented by the union and representation of their own choice.

Interview online at

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