Eugene V. Debs - Pioneer Rail Labor Leader
Railroad Workers United proudly presents this Page dedicated to the life and work of visionary rail labor organizer and leader, Eugene V. Debs.
Eugene Victor Debs, by far the best known U.S. rail union leader, was born in Terre Haute, IN November 5, 1855. Born to French immigrant parents, Debs dropped out of school at age 14 and went to work on the railroad as a shop worker. Shortly thereafter he became a locomotive fireman. By age 20 he was made secretary of his new local lodge of the Fireman’s union. Then in 1880, he was named Grand Secretary of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF) and editor of the Magazine.
In his capacity as a union leader, Debs worked tirelessly to organize the firemen, but soon came to realize that the other railroad crafts must also be organized in order for the firemen to have any real power. Thus, he then assisted in the organizing of the brakemen, switchmen, carmen and telegraphers among other crafts, into their respective craft unions. Appreciating the need for active cooperation between crafts and their unions, he set about to organize a federation of rail workers’ unions. Success was achieved in this endeavor as well, until craft jurisdiction and jealousy caused the federation’s collapse.
Not long after, Debs resigned his position as Secretary-Treasurer of the BLF despite the mass objection of the firemen rank and file. And in 1893, together with other forward thinking rail union leaders, Debs organized the nation’s first industrial union, the American Railway Union (ARU). After years of first hand experience with the failures of the old craft unionism, Debs was now firmly convinced of the need for this new advanced form of union – the industrial union – where all workers in the industry would be organized as a whole, as opposed to separated – and hence ineffectual – under the old outmoded craft union structure.
The American Railway Union generated wide interest and support among the rail workers of North America. Rails were signing up at the rate of 2,000 a week, and within six months the new organization had 150,000 members! Its first contest pitted it against the Great Northern, and its powerful President James J. Hill, the “Empire Builder”, in the spring of 1894. ARU members from all crafts struck and the Great Northern was paralyzed. In less than three weeks time, the union had emerged victorious, winning nearly all of its demands. The power of industrial unionism had been demonstrated!
A few months later the ARU faced another test as it was pitted against the Pullman Company. In what was to become known as the "Great Pullman Strike of 1894”, the ARU was defeated by a grand coalition of Pullman, the major rail carriers, the corporate press, and the federal government and troops. The carriers – and corporate America as a whole -- were determined to smash the ARU because it presented a formidable opponent, a valuable example of what can be achieved when workers organize along industrial lines. Meantime, the carriers continued to work “cooperatively” with the weak, divided and ineffective craft unions. Debs and the other ARU leaders were jailed for violating a federal judge’s injunction against the strike, which was later upheld by the Supreme Court.
Debs’ experience with the ARU and prison further radicalized him. Around the turn of the century, together with other labor and populist political leaders, he founded the Socialist Party of America. Debs went on to become a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW or “Wobblies”) in 1905, an industrial type union that advocated “One Big Union” of all workers of all lands. He also ran for President of the United States five times, once receiving nearly a million votes as a federal prisoner in the Atlanta Penitentiary.
On June 16 1918 , after nearly a half century of union and political organizing – now in his 60s -- Debs gave a speech in Canton, Ohio in opposition to World War I. He was arrested under the Espionage Act of 1917. He was convicted, sentenced to serve ten years in prison and disenfranchised for life. Once again, the Supreme Court upheld his conviction.
He was pardoned and released on Christmas Day, 1921 by President Harding at age 65. While his health was broken, his spirit and optimism remained indomitable. He remained an outspoken advocate for the cause of labor and the working class. Debs died in 1926 at the age of 70 in Elmhurst, Illinois.
Eugene V. Debs lived an extraordinary life, one devoted to the cause of the average working man and woman. He was a true hero of the railroad workers of his time and remains one to this day, his name revered by railroad workers from coast-to-coast.
Quotes by Eugene Debs
“In all the history of organized labor, from the earliest times to the present day, no body of union workingmen ever served in a more humiliating and debasing role than that in which the railway unions appear at this very hour before the American people and the world.” -- Eugene V. Debs, February 3, 1906
“One glance proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that these unions (railroad craft unions) are exceedingly useful to the corporations; and to the extent that they serve the economic and political purposes of the corporations, they are the foes – and not the friends – of the working class.” -- Eugene V. Debs, November 23, 1905
“Speaking of myself, I was made to realize long ago that the old trade union was utterly incompetent to deal successfully with the exploiting corporations in this struggle. I was made to see that in craft unionism the capitalist class have it within their power to keep the workers divided, to use one part of them to conquer and crush another part of them. Indeed, I was made to see that the old form of unionism separates the workers and keeps them helpless at the mercy of their masters.” -- Eugene V. Debs, November 23, 1905 “
Why should the railroad employees be parceled out among a score of different organizations? They are all employed in the same service. Their interests are mutual. They ought to be able to act together as one. But they divide according to craft and calling, and if you were to propose today to unite them that they might actually do something to advance their collective and individual interests as workers, you would be opposed by every grand officer of these organizations” -- Eugene V. Debs, November 23, 1905
“As long as this great army of workers is scattered among so many craft unions, it will be impossible for them to unite and act in harmony together. Craft unionism is the negation of solidarity. The more unions you have, the less unity.” -- Eugene V. Debs, November 24, 1905
For more quotes by Eugene V. debs click here EVD quotes page.
A letter to Tom Mann on Industrial Unionism
YOUR communication of the 19th has been received and has been noted with special interest and appreciation. Of course I know you and have known you for a number of years by your excellent work. I followed you to Australia and read a number of your articles from there but did not know until your letter came that you had returned to England.
Let me thank you most warmly for your kind words in reference to myself personally and to say in answer that I have the same high regard, the same strong attachment for you as a fellow-worker and revolutionist.
Touching the matter of industrial unionism to which you refer, we have had, as you are aware, some peculiar and distressing experiences on this side. But we are not in the least discouraged, nor any less ardent in our advocacy of the principles of industrial unionism, while we have profited somewhat, I trust, by that experience.
By even mail I am sending you a few booklets in which you will find my views upon the essentials set forth pretty fully, if not as clearly as I would wish to present them. In answer to your direct inquiry I have to say that I too am opposed, like yourself, to undertaking to destroy the old unions. Such a policy can be fruitful only of mischief to industrial unionism, as we have reason to know on this side. It is true that the old unions are for the most part thoroughly outgrown, reactionary, and utterly hostile to revolutionary agitation and activity, and that their leaders are of the same character, if they are not corrupt besides, and yet to attempt to destroy them is to make them more impregnable as strongholds of capitalism, strengthen their leaders in the estimation of the rank and file, and give them a new lease of prestige and power.
I do believe that an industrial union should be organized and it should carry forward a most vigorous and comprehensive propaganda. There are millions of unorganized to whom it can make its appeal, as well as to those who are organized and lean toward industrial unionism. It should be distinctly understood that to smash the existing unions and establish industrial unions by force is not its mission, but that on the contrary, it has come as the most intelligent and effective expression of labor unionism, that its purpose is to build and not to destroy, to help and not to hinder, thus inspiring the confidence of the workers, whether organized or unorganized, and recruiting its ranks from the most intelligent and experienced in every department of industrial activity.
The taunts and sneers of the “pure and simple” leaders who have nothing to lose but their jobs, and whose leadership depends upon their keeping the workers segregated in craft unions, may well be ignored, instead of allowing ourselves to be goaded into attacking them, thereby giving warrant to these leaders in charging us, which they are only too eager to do, with seeking to destroy their unions. The effect of this is invariably to fortify these unions more strongly in their reactionary attitude, and their so-called leaders in their corrupt and degrading domination.
It is far wiser, as our experience has demonstrated, to devote our time, means and energy to advocating the principles of industrial unionism, building up our organization and vitalizing our propaganda by an appeal to the intelligence and integrity of the workers, bearing with them patiently and perseveringly, while at the same time aiding and encouraging them in all their struggles for better conditions, than to waste time in denouncing, or seeking to destroy, these reactionary old unions and their leaders.
Industrial unionism, as organized and applied, to find favor with the workers, must give proof of its sympathy with them in all their struggles, rejoice with them when they win, and when they lose cheer them up and point the way to victory.
It matters not what union it is that happens to be engaged in a fight with the master class, or what its attitude may be toward industrial unionism, the invariable policy of the industrial union should be to back up the contestants and help them win their struggle by all the means at its command. This policy will do more, infinitely more to inspire the faith of the workers in industrial unionism and draw them to its standard than any possible amount of denunciation or attempted destruction of the old unions.
Nor do I believe in organizing dual unions in any case where the old union substantially holds the field. Where an old union is disintegrating it is of course different. Here there is need of organization, or rather reorganization, and hence a legitimate field for industrial unionism.
Industrial evolution has made industrial unionism possible and revolutionary education and agitation must now make it inevitable. To this end we should bore from within and without, the industrial unionists within the old unions working together in perfect harmony with the industrial unionists upon the outside engaged in laying the foundation and erecting the superstructure of the new revolutionary economic organization, the embryonic industrial democracy.
The difficulties we have encountered on this side since organizing the Industrial Workers have largely been overcome and I believe the time is near at hand when all industrial unionists will work together to build up the needed organization and when industrial unionism will receive such impetus as will force it to the front irresistibly in response to the crying need of the enslaved and despoiled workers in their struggle for emancipation.
The economic organization of the working class is as essential to the revolutionary movement as the sun is to light and the workers are coming more and more to realize it, and the triumph of industrial unionism over craft unionism is but a question of time, and this can be materially shortened if we but deal wisely and sanely with the situation.
Believe me in the bonds of industrial unionism and socialism
Your comrade and fellow-worker,
Eugene V. Debs
Links to more information about Eugene V. Debs
Official Site of the Eugene V Debs Foundation in Terre Haute, IN.
Extensive archive of Eugene V. Debs material
Britannica Online Encyclopedia Article on Eugene V. Debs
A Brief Biography of Debs
A website dedicated to the labor situation, prison conditions, and the excesses of warfare
A Number of Debs Biographies
Debs' Statement ot the Court After Being Sentenced to 10 Years in Federal Prison
Eugene V. Debs: A Biography Ray Ginger 1962 One of a number of biographies available on the life of rail labor's most famous leader, arguably the best biography of Debs.
Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist Nick Salvatore University of Illinois Urbana 1984 "In this stunning book, Salvatore sets Debs firmly within the central traditions of United States political and social history and depicts, as never before, the triumph and tragedy that characterized the socialist leader's personal and public life." --American Historical Review
Eugene V. Debs Speaks Eugene V. Debs Pathfinder Press New York 1970 Just one of many books available that contains a broad variety of the speeches given by Debs over the course of his life.