This latest attempt to cover the subject of John L. Lewis in one volume makes exciting, highly colorful reading. It draws on interviews more than anything else for its facts, and thus gains a high degree of emotional impact in describing the conflicts that have always surrounded the big, ham-handed UMW boss.
But the same interview system that gives this book strength and color also makes it something less than an impartial work. Mr. Alinsky, who is a long-time acquaintance of Lewis, tends to over-emphasize his central character at the expense of the other men with whom the founder of the CIO has dealt.
There is some justification for pointing up Lewis, and the author documents it: "In the year of 1937 John L. Lewis and his activities took in the New York Times 99,816 column inches or 4.2 percent of the total news coverage for the year, foreign or domestic. This meant that about one-twentieth of the New York Times day in and day out was devoted to Lewis and his operations." Lewis is now, and always has been, a big man in American unionism: this cannot be denied, even by his most rabid enemy. But a good biographer must balance his book, and this Mr. Alinsky has not done.
Phillip Murray especially gets what seems unfair treatment. The man who led the organizing drive of the steel industry, who got U. S. Steel to sign a contract without a strike in 1937, who pushed his organizers through the tough "Little Steel" campaigns cannot be dismissed as a Lewis stooge without considerable evidence. Mr. Alinsky fails to point out that Murray may have been far more representative of the sentiments of labor than was Lewis when Murray took over the CIO, and that he certainly has followed since then a policy more sensitive to the needs and desires of the country than the course followed by Lewis and the UMW.
Lewis' insuperable urge for power, which helped him break away from the AFL in 1935 and from his own CIO after 1940, is fully displayed here with considerable objectivity. Mr. Alinsky, though an intimate of Lewis, is keenly aware of his subject's personal weaknesses, and deals fairly with them; it is on the level of policy and politics that there seems to be unfairness.
This is no definitive work; the author makes no pretenses to such an object. But it is an interesting job in the man who one day this week will decide whether half a million coal miners have presents for their kids on Christmas. A man with that kind of power deserves a vivid biography, which is just what Mr. Alinsky has given him.