Eugene Debs held memberships and official positions in two late 19th century labor unions: the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF) and the American Railway Union (ARU). Later, he joined a group of labor radicals to found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Debs promoted workers’ right to organize unions and to strike in order to protect their interests, for shorter hours, and for restrictions on child labor.
Debs was a charter member and first secretary of the Terre Haute chapter of the BLF. Joshua Leach came to Terre Haute from St. Louis to form Vigo Lodge #16, and although Debs by this time had left railroad work and was employed as a clerk in the Hulman grocery business, Debs was allowed to join. Seeing Debs energy and enthusiasm, soon afterwards Leach is alleged to have said: “I put a tow-headed boy in the brotherhood at Terre Haute not long ago, and some day he will be at the head of it.” An accurate prophesy, for Debs established himself as one of the nation’s most successful union leaders and organizers whose reputation spread far beyond the BLF membership.
Debs was appointed editor of the BLF Magazine, where the power of his journalism became evident and caused the readership of the Magazine to spread well beyond the brotherhood’s membership, making it a foremost labor voice at a time when the printed word had no competition from such media as radio and television. In 1880, Debs was named Grand Secretary- Treasurer of BLF, a post he held until he stepped down in 1891, but was prevailed upon to continue editorship of the Magazine.
Debs left the BLF because of frustration over the ineffectiveness of the brotherhoods. Being organized along craft lines in the railroad industry, with separate brotherhoods for brakemen, firemen, telegraphers, switchmen and so on, the owners easily could break a strike or job action of one brotherhood by hiring replacement workers. Debs saw the need for an industry-wide union organization which would unite all the workers on the railroads. So, in 1893, in Chicago, Debs founded the American Railway Union (ARU). Due largely to Debs’ established reputation and widespread recognition among workers, to say nothing of his tireless efforts and boundless enthusiasm, the ARU achieved phenomenal organizing success and membership expanded rapidly at a time when other labor unions were struggling just to stay alive.
In 1893, the ARU called a strike against the Great Northern Railroad, which was an extremely important railroad carrying freight and passengers west from Milwaukee to the Pacific Northwest. The strike was settled after 18 days and a contract signed which met virtually all union demands.
Perhaps this success gave the ARU membership an excessive sense of optimism and power, which would prove to be the union’s undoing. When the ARU met in May, 1894, at its annual convention in Chicago, a delegation of desperate employees and their families from Pullman City came with an appeal for support in their struggle with the Pullman Company
The so-called “Pullman Boycott” grew out of the ARU’s sympathy for the plight of laid off workers and reduced wages, but with no reduction in rent or prices for groceries at the company store where they were required to shop. Debs advocated caution and urged efforts at mediation before the ARU took on the Pullman company. After all, these workers produced sleeping cars; they were not railroad workers.
Debs’ words of caution went unheeded, besides, the Pullman executives refused all efforts at mediation, so Deb had no choice but to lead the ARU in the boycott. The Pullman Company did not have to go it alone against the ARU as had the Great Northern. The full force of support from all the railroad company owners plus the Federal government, including the legal system and the national guard, not to mention solid support form the press, were all marshalled in a solid front aimed at breaking the strike and destroying the up-start union. The ARU got virtually no support from other unions or the Gompers led American Federation of Labor. The result was total disaster for the ARU. The strike was broken. Debs and other ARU officials were sentenced to a year in jail for having violated injunction against the strike. (The same judge who had issued the injunction passed judgment and sentence on the ARU officials.) Robbed of its leadership, its members blacklisted everywhere making it impossible to find work on the railroads, the ARU never recovered.
Debs served time in prison twice during his life: once in 1895, served in Woodstock jail, Illinois for his actions as union leader, and again after World
War I, in Atlanta Federal Prison, for violating the Espionage Act by speaking out against our involvement in the war.
This ended Debs’ career as a union leader. He had come to see that changes would have to be made in our political and legal institutions before unions could succeed in protecting workers rights, so the rest of his life was spent in the political arena. But Debs had succeeded in demonstrating what role the industrial type of union could play in a society where workers’ rights could be protected. So the ARU remained as an example of the superior type of union organization which united workers by industry rather than by interests of craft or skill.
That Debs was no longer a union leader did not mean that his continued interest in workers’ rights would be expressed only in political activities. Wherever and whenever workers were in confrontation with owners, Debs was likely to show up to offer support and encouragement. In many a coal field action, for example, Debs would be there to work with and encourage the striking men, and legendary Mother Jones would focus on working with the strikers’ wives and families. Debs was there to show support in the infamous Ludlow, Colorado disaster, where the Rockefellow owned mining company hired gunmen to shoot up and burn the tent city in which the miners and their wives and children were living. Some 25 women and children perished, a public relations nightmare for Rockefellow.
In summary, half of Debs’ adult life was spend as union leader, and the remaining half was spent attempting to advance workers’ rights through the political arena, advocating the right to organize and to strike, restrictions on child labor, and job security. Also, at one brief point in the “political half’ of his career, Debs joined with Bill Haywood and Mother Jones, in 1905, to found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW was seriously divided by every shade of radical opinion, including Haywoods syndicalism, Mother Jones trade unionism, and Lucy Parsons’ anarchism, and Debs’ disagreement with the leadership over numerous issues, including Debs’ insistence on nonviolence, led him to drop out of that organization after a few years.
EUGENE VICTOR DEBS 1855-1926
Born: Nov. 5,1855, at Terre Haute, Indiana.
Died: Oct. 20,1926, Lindlahr Sanitarium, Elmhurst, Illinois. Buried in Terre Haute, Ind.
Education: Attended Terre Haute Public schools, dropping out of high school at age of 14 to take job as painter in railroad yards. In 1870 became fireman on railroad. In his spare time, he went to night classes at a local business college.
September 1874—At his mother’s insistence he gave up job as railroad fireman and went to work in wholesale grocery firm of Hulman & Cox as a billing clerk.
February 27, 1875—Became charter member and secretary of Vigo Lodge, Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. He continued work at Hulman & Cox and used his salary to help the fledgling local union and conducted its work at night. Later the same year he became president of Occidental Literary Club of Terre Haute. Brought famous personages to Terre Haute including Col. Robert Ingersoll, James Whitcomb Riley, Susan B. Anthony and many others.
1878— Made assistant editor of national Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman’s Magazine.
1879—Elected to first of two terms as City Clerk of Terre Haute on Democrat ticket.
1880—Named Grand Secretary of Brotherhood of Railway Firemen and editor of the Magazine.
1884—Elected state representative to the Indiana General Assembly as a Democrat representing Terre Haute and Vigo County. Served in 1885.
June 9, 1885—Married to Kate Metzel whom he loved and cherished until his death. They had no children.
1890—Built and moved into his beautiful Terre Haute home at 451 North Eighth Street, which is now a National Historic Landmark of the National Parks Department of the Department of Interior of the United States; an official historic site of the State of Indiana and is now the Debs Museum.
1891—Announced his retirement from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen as its Grand Secretary.
1892—Convention of Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen prevailed on him to retain editorship of Magazine.
June 1893—Organized in Chicago first industrial union in United States, the American Railway Union.
April 1894—The American Railway Union struck Great Northern Railway. Not a wheel moved on Great Northern and at end of 18 days, the railway granted demands of union.
May 11, 1894—Pullman Boycott and strike at Chicago began.
July 23, 1894—Debs and leaders of ARU jailed.
May, 1895—Debs and leaders of ARU sent to jail for contempt of court in connection with Pullman strike. Finished sentences Nov. 22, 1895. Given triumphal welcome by thousands on his arrival in Chicago, from Woodstock, Ill. jail where sentence was served.
1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, 1920—Ran as candidate of Socialist Party for President of the United States in some of the most dynamic campaigning ever seen in the United States. Made his greatest showing in campaign of 1908 which featured the RED SPECIAL train which went to every section of the country.
1907-1912—Named Associate Editor of the Appeal to Reason published in Girard, Kan. He was paid the then fabulous salary of $100 per week. The weekly magazine achieved a circulation of several hundred thousand due to the powerful writing of Debs. The bound files of the Appeal to Reason for the years of 1907 to 1914 ar part of the library in the Debs home.
1916—Ran for Congress in his home district in Terre Haute on the Socialist ticket and was defeated.
June 16, 1918—Debs made his famous anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, protesting World War I which was raging in Europe. For this speech he was arrested and convicted in federal court in Cleveland, Ohio under the war-time espionage law. He was his own attorney and his appeal to the jury and his statement to the court before sentencing, are regarded as two of the great classic statements ever made in a court of law. He was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison and disenfranchised for life, losing his citizenship.
April 12, 1919—Debs began serving his sentence in Moundsville, W. Va. State prison and was transferred to Atlanta, Ga. Federal prison two months later. His humility and friendliness and his assistance to all won him the respect and admiration of the most hardened convicts.
1920—For the fifth and last time, while a prisoner at Atlanta, he was nominated to run for president on the Socialist party ticket. Conducting his campaign from inside the prison, he was given nearly a million votes but was defeated by the Republican, Warren G. Harding. On Christmas Day, 1921 President Harding released Debs from prison, commuting his sentence to time served.
Dec. 28, 1921—Debs arrived home in Terre Haute from prison and was given a tremendous welcome by thousand of Terre Hauteans. Debs spent his remaining days trying to recover his health which was severely undermined by prison confinement. He made several speeches, wrote many articles and finally in 1926 went to Lindlahr sanitarium just outside of Chicago.
Oct. 20, 1926—Eugene V. Debs died in Lindlahr sanitarium. His body was brought back to Terre Haute where it lay in state in the Terre Haute Central Labor Temple. Great men and women from the world came over to Terre Haute for his funeral which was conducted by Norman Thomas from the front porch of the Debs home. ThIrty-eight years later, Thomas returned to Terre Haute to dedicate the Debs home as a memorial to the great humanitarian. Debs was cremated and his ashes were interred in Highland Lawn cemetery, Terre Haute, with only a simple marker. Ten years later his beloved wife, Kate, was buried beside him. Over the years, hundreds have journeyed to his grave to pay tribute to this great man whose many reforms have now become a part of the American way of life. There is hardly any American alive today, rich or poor, whose life has not been touched in some beneficent way by the influence of Eugene Victor Debs.
“Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds there is nothing that you cannot do for yourselves.”
From an address on Industrial Unionism delivered at Grand Central Palace. New York City, Dec. 18,1905.
Ray Ginger, The Bending Cross. Rutgers University Press, 1949.
Reprinted by The Thomas Jefferson University Press at Northeast
Missouri State University, 1992. By far the most descriptive and
detailed of the accounts of Debs’ life, the reprint edition was brought
out by the Debs Foundation. It includes numerous photographs of Debs’
life and an introduction by J. Robert Constantine.
William H. Carwardine, The Pullman Strike. Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company,
1894 and 1973.
Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. University of
Illinois Press, 1983.
Theodore Debs, Sidelights in the Life of Debs.
Key Profiles, Bios & Links Blog