Happy Debs Day! Eugene V. Debs Birthday November 5
Eugene Victor “Gene” Debs (November 5, 1855 – October 20, 1926) was an American union leader, one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or the Wobblies), and several times the candidate of the Socialist Party of America for President of the United States. Through his presidential candidacies, as well as his work with labor movements, Debs eventually became one of the best-known socialists living in the United States.
In the early part of his political career, Debs was a member of the Democratic Party. He was elected as a Democrat to the Indiana General Assembly in 1884. After working with several smaller unions, including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, Debs was instrumental in the founding of the American Railway Union (ARU), the nation’s first industrial union. After workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company organized a wildcat strike over pay cuts in the summer of 1894, Debs signed many into the ARU. He called a boycott of the ARU against handling trains with Pullman cars, in what became the nationwide Pullman Strike, affecting most lines west of Detroit, and more than 250,000 workers in 27 states. To keep the mail running, President Grover Cleveland used the United States Army to break the strike. As a leader of the ARU, Debs was convicted of federal charges for defying a court injunction against the strike and served six months in prison.
Debs read the works of Karl Marx and learned about socialism in prison, emerging to launch his career as the nation’s most prominent Socialist in the first decades of the 20th century. He ran as the Socialist Party’s candidate for the presidency in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920, the last time from a prison cell.
In 1894 Debs became involved in the Pullman Strike, which grew out of a compensation dispute started by the workers who constructed the train cars made by the Pullman Palace Car Company. The Pullman Company, citing falling revenue after the economic Panic of 1893, had cut the wages of its employees by 28%. The workers, many of whom were already members of the American Railway Union, appealed for support to the union at its convention in Chicago, Illinois. Debs tried to persuade the Union members who worked on the railways that the boycott was too risky, given the hostility of both the railways and the federal government, the weakness of the Union, and the possibility that other unions would break the strike. The membership ignored his warnings and refused to handle Pullman cars or any other railroad cars attached to them, including cars containing U.S. Mail. After A.R.U. Board Director Martin J. Elliot extended the strike to St. Louis, doubling its size to 80,000 workers, Debs relented and decided to take part in the strike, which was now endorsed by almost all members of the ARU in the immediate area of Chicago. On July 9, 1894, a New York Times editorial called Debs “a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race.” Strikers fought by establishing boycotts of Pullman train cars, and with Debs’ eventual leadership, the strike came to be known as “Debs’ Rebellion”.
The U.S. federal government intervened, obtaining an injunction against the strike on the theory that the strikers had obstructed the U.S. Mail, carried on Pullman cars, by refusing to show up for work. President Grover Cleveland sent the United States Army to enforce the injunction. The entrance of the Army was enough to break the strike; 13 strikers were killed, and thousands were blacklisted. An estimated $80-million worth of property was damaged, and Debs was found guilty of contempt of court for violating the injunction and sent to federal prison.
Debs was represented by Clarence Darrow, hitherto a corporate lawyer for the railroad company, who “switched sides” to represent Debs. Darrow, a leading American lawyer and civil libertarian, had resigned his corporate position in order to represent Debs, making a substantial financial sacrifice in order to do so. A Supreme Court case decision, In re Debs, later upheld the right of the federal government to issue the injunction.
Eugene Debs helped motivate the American Left as a measure of political opposition to corporations and World War I. American socialists, communists, and anarchists honor his compassion for the labor movement and motivation to have the average working man build socialism without large state involvement. Several books have been written about his life as an inspirational American socialist.