Working people could find no greater inspiration in their current struggle against powerful anti-labor forces than the extraordinary life of labor leader Eugene V. Debs, who died 85 years ago this month.
Few American leaders have been more loved and influential, yet more hated than Gene Debs, whose proposed cures for the economic ills that infect American society remain as valid, vital and essential as ever.
Union organizer and strike leader, spellbinding orator, founder of the Socialist Party of America, five times a candidate for president – Debs was all that and more.
He realized, back in the late 1800s, that ordinary people were at the mercy of the corporate entities that had come to control the economic and political life of the country. They retain control, of course, but the struggle waged by Debs and his allies can provide valuable guidance as well as inspiration to those who are continuing the long struggle to weaken corporate dominance.
In Debs' time, as now, politicians were elected, workers hired and fired, working conditions determined, factories opened and closed and many other societal decisions made primarily – if not solely – with an eye to maximizing corporate profit. Then, as now, profits, executive compensation and stockholder returns soared as workers' pay declined and unemployment rose.
“March together, vote together, fight together,” Debs urged working people faced with the formidable economic and political forces that were profiting at their expense.
Debs, a locomotive fireman, tried first to bring all of the country's railroad workers into a single industrial union. That would arm them with the key weapon of solidarity that was denied other unionized workers, who were organized according to trade rather than industry.
The year was 1893. Debs – in his late thirties, tall, thin, striking – traveled the country to deliver as many as seven two-hour speeches a week to railroad workers. After just a year, his American Railway Union – the ARU – had 150,000 members, half the strength of the entire American Federation of Labor at that time.
The ARU quickly set out to battle the enormously powerful railroad barons who subjected their employees to lives of poverty or near poverty. The union's major effort was a massive strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company, which manufactured and leased the sleeping cars used by most railroads.
The ARU called the walkout after Pullman refused to rescind drastic pay cuts it had unilaterally imposed on its workers, soon drawing support from more than a quarter-million other railroad employees. Their sympathy strikes shut down most of what was then the country's largest and most important industry.
For more than two weeks, it was a standoff. But then employers persuaded the federal government to get a court injunction ordering strikers back to work, on grounds that they had conspired to illegally restrain trade. When the injunction was ignored, more than 14,000 heavily armed federal troops, marshals and police were called to duty in 27 states to get the trains moving again.
Thirty-four people were shot dead, dozens seriously wounded, and hundreds jailed for contempt – Debs himself for six months. The strike and the American Railway Union were broken.
Yet the strike was not in the end a failure. The strikers' extraordinary efforts kept alive the idea of mass unionization, inspiring and providing important lessons for those who finally brought the idea to realization in the 1930s.
Debs spent much of his jail time reading radical literature that convinced him working people would never prevail unless they acted together in politics as well as on the job to combat a capitalist system “in which workers, however organized, can be shattered and splintered at a single stroke.”
Their vehicle would be their own party – a socialist party Debs set out to organize with the same intense energy he had devoted to organizing the American Railway Union.
The party's goal was “the collective ownership and control of industry and its democratic management in the interest of all the people. The elimination of rent, interest and profit, the end of class struggles and class rule, the end of master and slave, of poverty and shame.”
Relatively few people joined Debs' party. But he remained extremely popular among working people because of his unyielding defense of their rights, his genuine warmth and generosity, friendliness, courage, modesty and unquestionable integrity, sincerity and dedication.
Debs' great popularity, however, earned him a place high on the public enemies list of the wealthy and privileged and their government allies. Eventually, it led to a ten-year prison sentence imposed on him for speaking out against U.S. involvement in World War I. A class war, Debs called it, fought on behalf of the upper classes by working-class men.
In 1920, while in the third year of his sentence, Debs waged from behind bars the last and most successful if his presidential campaigns. He got nearly one million votes, the most for a socialist in U.S. history. The winner, Republican Warren G. Harding, acceded to heavy public pressure and pardoned Debs shortly afterward.
He died five years later at 71, arguing to the end for what he fervently believed was needed to eradicate poverty and inequality.
The lifelong struggle of Gene Debs, his eloquent and persuasive arguments, had helped establish the eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek, helped create the Social Security system and job safety laws and regulations, helped workers win the right to pensions, unemployment benefits, compensation for on-the-job injuries and much, much more.
His was a record of helping Americans that few people in or out of public office have ever come close to matching. And though he's been gone for eight decades, the memories of what he did during his life continue to provide vital lessons for working people who seek true economic and political justice.