The film, Eugene Debs and the American Movement, gave an intense story of a great American labor leader. Eugene Victor Debs was born in Terre Haute, Ind. , on November 5 th, 1855. Deb’s legacy has him as one of the most influential American labor and political leaders of all time. Among his many accomplishments, his most prestigious has to be being a five time Socialist candidate for the President of the United States. This is quite an accomplishment for someone that left school at the age of 14 to support his family as a painter in the railroad yards.
Debs held positions in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman (BFL) which included being a charter member and first secretary of the Terre Haute chapter of the BFL. He would later be appointed editor of the BFL magazine and was also named Grand Secretary Treasurer of the BFL. Debs left the BLF because of frustration over the ineffectiveness of the brotherhoods and went on to organize the American Railway Union (ARU), which later reorganized into the Socialist Party of America, and was also a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
In 1870, Debs became a fireman on the railroads. Under his leadership, the American Railway Union (ARU) was formed in Chicago on June 20, 1893 as a single organization representing all crafts of railroad employees. Within the year the ARU had 125 locals, as thousands rushed to join the new type of union.
The Great Northern Railroad had begun cutting wages in August of 1893, with more cuts made in January and in March of 1894. In April, ARU workers voted to strike. The Great Northern Railroad was completely shut down for 18 days, and wages were restored as a result of an arbitration award. Workers began joining the ARU at the rate of thousands a day.
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The Pullman Car workers were among them. The Pullman shop workers went on a strike of their own against wage cuts in May of 1894. After hearing a stirring address by Jennie Curtis, the youthful leader of the women workers in the Pullman Shops, an assembly of the American Railway Unions voted to support the Pullman workers by refusing to work any trains that included Pullman cars. Thus, the Pullman Strike escalated into a nation-wide struggle between the railroad companies and the ARU. The Railroad Managers however, had an association of their own, and they saw an opportunity to crush the infant ARU. Their strategy was to order Pullman cars hooked to U.
S. Mail trains. The ARU members would then refuse to work the mail train. This development quickly brought the government into the case on the side of the Railroad Managers. The court issued an injunction against the ARU and it forbade its leaders to communicate with the members under any circumstances. Debs was arrested for alleged conspiracy to interfere with the mail and violation of the injunction.
He was jailed for six months in rural Woodstock, Illinois. With Debs in jail, the boycott collapsed and the American Railway Union was destroyed, just as the Railway Managers had planned. The strike at Pullman, also, ended in defeat for the union. “The Pullman Boycott of 1894 destroyed an embryonic mass union of railroad and related workers.” (Zieger & Gall 2002, p. 21) Thousands were arrested and blacklisted. This ended Deb’s career as a union leader.
Eugene got out of jail in 1895 and turned himself into a political leader. By 1897, he had reorganized the ARU into a new political party. In 1901, this party was formed. It was called the Socialist Party of America. Debs also helped to found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
“Founded in 1905, the IWW had a base among hard rock miners in the West and agricultural, lumber, garment, and other highly exploited workers around the country.” (Yates 1998, p.
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55) He remained active in the organization throughout its early years. The IWW believed that, “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” (Zinn 2001, p. 13) While with the IWW, Debs spent a large amount of his time as a lecturer and organizer in the Socialist movement. He was the candidate of the Socialist Party for President in 1900, 1904, 1908, and 1912; but would pay for expressing his views. The Espionage Act was passed by Congress in 1917 after the United States entered World War I. It set a $10, 000 fine and 20 years’ imprisonment for interfering with the recruiting of troops or the disclosure of information dealing with national defense.
Between 1914 and 1917 Debs made several speeches explaining why he believed that the United States should not join the war. After we declared war on the Central Powers in 1917, several Socialist Party members were arrested for violating the Espionage Act. After making a speech in Canton, Ohio, on June 16 th, 1918, criticizing the Espionage Act, Debs was arrested and sentenced to ten years in Atlanta Federal Prison. Debs would run his last Presidential campaign from the Atlanta Prison in 1920.
As a tribute to his influence across the nation, he received nearly one million votes; his most ever. On Christmas day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding commuted Debs sentence to time spent and Debs returned to his family in Terre Haute. He would do three years of a ten year sentence. Despite deteriorating health from life in prison, Debs continued to speak and write for the Socialist Party until his death on October 20, 1926.
Eugene Deb’s objectives in his political career were to give the women the right to vote, restrict child labor, protect workers rights to join unions and strike when necessary, and to protect the workplace on railroads, mines, and factories. Eugene Debs wrote in the International Socialist Review, “Like the shot at Lexington on April 20 in another year, the shots fired at Ludlow were heard around the world… It is more historic then Lexington and… will prove, as we believe, the signal for the American industrial revolution.” (Zinn 2001, p. 49) Debs influence on American Labor will forever be engraved in American history. Today, through his hard work and sacrifice, American workers have the rights and protection that he had dedicated his life towards.
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That is why Eugene Debs is one of the most influential American labor and political leaders of all time.