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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 272

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This is the grave of Eugene Debs.

Simply one of the greatest Americans to ever live, Debs was born in 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana to French immigrants. Although his family was not poor, Debs dropped out of school at age 14 to work on the railroad. In 1875, he joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. He slowly rose in the union over the next 15 years, serving in various offices, editing their newspaper, and being basically a useful person, although not the leader he would later become. He worked on pretty typical union issues of the era–death insurance programs, while writing essays on self-improvement and manly bearing. Like so many unionists of this era, he believed labor and capital should naturally cooperate and unions shouldn’t strike. This was an era where people strongly believed the new system of industrial capitalism was going to work great for the white workingmen. Learning that was not true would be some hard lessons for American workers. He also became involved in local politics and served one term in the Indiana legislature in the 1880s, as a Democrat.

By the mid-1880s, a lot of American workers began to realize something was wrong. Capital dominated the nation, workers were dirt poor. The railroad was the king. The balance of labor and capital had gotten way out of balance. Workers began seeking one-off ideas to fix this natural balance–the 8-hour day, Bellamyism, the Single Tax, Chinese exclusion. Debs saw what was going on and was smart enough to realize that what was needed was a stronger union movement. So in 1893, he started the American Railway Union. Debs believed in an industrial union that represented all white workers on the railroad, skilled and unskilled, as the key to improving their conditions. The ARU opposing the traditional railroad brotherhoods that represented only elite workers and which had help break the Great Southwest strike against Jay Gould in 1886. That the ARU still discriminated based upon race represented the overwhelming racism of white workers toward non-white competition. Solidarity might extend across the working class, but it hit a brick wall on the issue of race. Despite this and despite dislike from the brotherhoods, the ARU quickly found its legs, defeated the powerful James J. Hill and his Great Northern Railroad in a strike, and had 150,000 members within a year.

In 1894, the workers at the Pullman Sleeping Car Company went on strike, in what would become an iconic strike of American labor history. The ARU did not represent the Pullman strikers. But acting in solidarity with their fellow railroad laborers, the ARU refused to move any Pullman cars. An official boycott began on June 26 and like the 1877 Railroad Strike and the 1886 eight-hour strikes, generated its own momentum as a larger protest against corporate domination. By June 29, 150,000 workers were on strike and the American train system, vital to the nation’s economy, ground to a halt. American labor leaders saw it as a battle not just against Pullman, but all their corporate enemies. The Chicago Federation of Labor president said, “We all feel that in fighting any battle against the Pullman company we are aiming at the very head and front of monopoly and plutocracy.”

President Grover Cleveland’s attorney general was Richard Olney, former general counsel for the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway. Citing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, Olney ordered federal attorneys to issue injunctions against the ARU to protect his railroad friends. An injunction is a court order that compels a union to stop its action, often through hefty fines that quickly bankrupt the union, the classic state intervention on behalf of employers. The ARU refused to obey the injunction. Cleveland and Olney then called out the military to squash the strike. Commanded by General Nelson Miles, known for his role in crushing the last Native American resistance in the West, 12,000 U.S. troops, aided by U.S. Marshals, cracked down, using the pretense that it interfered with the delivery of the mail. Miles hated Debs, thought the strikers were defying the federal government, and followed through on his orders with relish. The next year, Debs proclaimed in a speech, “The American Railway Union challenged the power of corporations in way that had not previously been done.” This was why the government would not let them win.

The Pullman strike was largely nonviolent until the military intervened. On July 7, soldiers fired into a crowd, killing at least four strikers and wounding around twenty. The same day, the military arrested Debs and other ARU leaders. Facing unbeatable state repression, the strike fell apart. After thirteen strikers were killed and fifty-seven wounded, the Pullman plant reopened on August 2. Eugene Debs served six months in prison for violating the injunction, and spent his time reading Karl Marx. He became a socialist and emerged as the greatest leader for working-class rights the country had ever seen.

Although Debs’ wife was disgusted by her husband’s conversion to socialism, he continued on. He would run 4 times as the Socialist Party candidate for president, in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. His most successful run by far was in 1912, when he won 6% of the popular vote in that epic 4-way race.

Debs was also at the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905 and an alliance between the Socialist Party and the IWW continued until 1912, when Big Bill Haywood’s increasingly strident rejection of Socialist leaders’ incrementalism and of electoral politics entirely, finally led to his ejection, with Debs’ apparent approval.

During World War I, Debs gave speeches opposing the draft. This led the Wilson administration to arrest and convict him under the vile Espionage Act, which is still on the books today. In 1920, he ran for president from prison. Although Warren Harding pardoned him in 1921, his health was pretty much broken. Harding actually invited Debs to the White House in the aftermath, as a sign the Red Scare was over. This was pretty much the only good thing Harding ever did.

Debs died in 1926 after several years of ill health. He is buried in Highland Lawn Cemetery, Terre Haute, Indiana.

If you would like this series to visit other great leaders of the American left, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. I need to get to Mount Olive, Illinois to see Mother Jones, among other people I need to pay my respects to. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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