Eugene V. Debs
was this giant of the American labor movement and the progressive citizenry?
Eugene V. Debs was born in a wooden shack in Terre Haute, Indiana on
February 5, 1855. At age 16 he became a locomotive fireman, stoking
fires on the early prairie railroads. His years working on the railroad
affected him so deeply that when the local of the Brotherhood of Locomotive
Firemen was organized in 1875 Debs played an active role. He became
secretary of the local at the Buffalo Convention of 1878. He was made
Associate Editor of the Fireman's Magazine; two years later he became
Grand Secretary and Treasurer of the entire union and Editor in Chief
of the magazine.
Debs worked for the Brotherhood, sometimes laboring 18 hours a day.
He traveled constantly, riding the engines, sleeping in bunks and cabooses,
tramping through railroad yards in rain, snow or sleet, fighting with
conductors and railroad detectives. As he labored, the seed of agitation
took deep root in his heart during these years of intimacy with the
workers. He worked for the union through the 1880s, briefly interrupting
his labor to serve a term as a Democrat in the Indiana legislature.
However, he discovered that to make a labor organization effective,
he could not concentrate on firemen alone. He found himself organizing
brakemen, switchmen, car men, telegraphers; and he came to feel more
and more that union organization along craft lines might itself be a
fatal error. He recognized that craft unionism simply gave the employer
new weapons for the ancient game of divide and conquer. Labor must recognize
its interests as indivisible; it must act as a single force – and this
meant trade union organization in industrial units which corresponded
to the units of business.
In 1893 Debs brought into existence the American Railway Union (ARU),
an industrial union designed for all classes of railway workers. In
April 1894, Debs and the ARU won their first major strike - an 18 day
affair against James J. Hill and the Great Northern. His next challenge
was to lead the Pullman Workers against the harsh wage cuts unaccompanied
by any reduction in the cost of living in the company town. Although
Debs was reluctant to gamble the ARU in an all-out strike against the
Pullman Company, the Union voted for the strike. Once the decision was
made Debs wholeheartedly took charge. Forty-thousand workers were out
on strike. The business community, already panic stricken by the combination
of labor militancy and hard times, now set out to mobilize behind Pullman.
After sweeping injunctions and the introduction of Federal troops into
Illinois, the strike was broken in a few weeks.
Debs was sentenced to six months in jail for contempt as a result of
his defiance of the injunction. Debs' life changed as a result of his
jailing. He did extensive reading. He thought out the injustice in American
life. Debs also understood that working people in the United States
needed their own political party. In 1887, Debs transformed the American
Railroad Union into the Social Democratic Party of the United States.
"There is no hope for the toiling masses of my Countrymen," he said,
"except by the pathways mapped out by Socialists, the advocates of the
Debs ran for President of the United States in 1901 under the Socialist
Party banner and polled 100,000 votes. In 1904 he polled 400,000 votes
and in 1912 Debs polled 900,000 votes - almost 6 percent of the total.
In 1905, Debs helped found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)
- the realization of his ancient dream of ONE BIG UNION. Through the
years Debs had been unsparing in his denunciation of the American Federation
of Labor (AFL) which seemed to have found a comfortable niche in the
"The old form of trade unionism," cried Debs, "no longer meets the demands
of the working class ... It is now positively reactionary, and is maintained,
not in the interests of the workers who support it, but in the interests
of the capitalist class who exploit the workers." So long as the working
class was parceled out among thousands of separate unions, united economic
and political action would be impossible. The IWW provided new hope.
In 1918, Debs made a speech that violated the Espionage Act. He was
accused of promoting resistance to the war (WWI). In his last speech
to the jury, Debs eloquently stated his case: "I admit to being opposed
to the present form of government ," he said. "I admit being opposed
to the present social system. I am doing what little I can and have
been for many years to bring about change that shall do away with the
rule of the great body of the people by a relatively small group and
establish in this country an industrial and social democracy ... What
you may choose to do to me will be of small consequence ... American
institutions are on trial here before a court of American Citizens."
War hysteria was high at the time. In April 1919, Debs, an old man,
broken health but still indomitable in spirit, was found guilty and
sentenced to ten years in prison. In 1920 at the Socialist Party Convention,
convict #9653 was nominated for President of the United States -- Eugene
Victor Debs. Debs polled over 900,000 votes running for President from
inside a jail cell.
Debs had great foresight. He understood industrial unions were necessary
and the birth of the CIO in the 1930s was validation of this view. When
Eugene Victor Debs died on October 20, 1926, a great patriotic American
passed from the scene. His life had a profound effect on the emerging
labor movement. We should honor Debs by studying his life.
The above text has been selectively extracted and edited from Arthur
M. Schlesinger Jr.'s introduction to The Writings and Speeches of
Eugene V. Debs, NY: Hermitage Press, Inc., 1948.