Political and Social Movements

Labor Unions

Who was Eugene Debs?

Debs (1855–1926) was a radical labor leader who in 1893 founded the American Railway Union (ARU), an industrial union for all railroad workers. Debs was a charismatic speaker, but he was also a controversial figure in American life around the turn of the century. In 1894 workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company, which manufactured railcars in Pullman, Illinois (near Chicago), went on strike to protest a significant reduction in their wages. Pullman was a model “company town” where the railcar manufacturer, founded by American inventor George W. Pullman (1831–1897) in 1867, owned all the land and buildings, and ran the school, bank, and utilities. In 1893, in order to maintain profits following declining revenues, the Pullman Company cut workers wages by 25 to 40 percent, but did not adjust rent and prices in the town, forcing many employees and their families into deprivation. In May 1894 a labor committee approached Pullman Company management to resolve the situation. The company, which had always refused to negotiate with employees, responded by firing the labor committee members. The firings incited a strike of all 3,300 Pullman workers. In support of the labor effort, Eugene Debs assumed leadership of the strike (some Pullman employees had joined the ARU in 1894) and directed all ARU members not to haul any Pullman cars. A general rail strike followed, which paralyzed transportation across the country. In response to what was now being called “Deb’s rebellion,” a July 2, 1894, federal court order demanded all workers to return to the job, but the ARU refused to comply. U.S. president Grover Cleveland (1837–1908) ordered federal troops to break the strike, citing it interfered with mail delivery. The intervention turned violent. Despite public protest, Debs, who was tried for contempt of court and conspiracy, was imprisoned in 1895 for having violated the court order. Debs later proclaimed himself a socialist and became leader of the American Left, running unsuccessfully for president as the Socialist Party candidate five times, in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. He actively supported the causes of the International Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labor organization founded in 1905.


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