GENE DEBS, AMERICAN HERO
By Dick Meister
It was 75 years ago that Gene Debs died -- Eugene V. Debs, one of the best
loved and most influential but also most hated leaders in U.S. history.
Three-quarters of a century. Yet Debs' ideas, his 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 1880s, that ordinary people
were at the mercy of the corporate entities that had come to control the
political and economic life of the country. They retain control, of course
-- but those seeking to weaken their hold could find no better guide than
Then, as now, politicians were elected, workers hired, workers fired,
working conditions determined, factories opened, factories closed and so
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
"March together, vote together and fight together" Debs urged working
people faced with the formidable economic and political forces profiting at
Debs, who became a locomotive firemen at 15 in his hometown of Terre
Haute, Ind., 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 denied other unionized workers, who were organized according to
trade rather than industry. The year was 1893. Debs, tall, thin and
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
had 150,000 members, half the strength of the entire American Federation of
The ARU quickly set out to battle the enormously powerful railroad barons
who subjected their employees to lives of poverty or near-poverty. Its 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 hack to work,
on grounds that they had conspired to illegally restrain trade. When that
was ignored, more than 14,000 heavily armed federal troops, marshals and
policemen 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 far those who finally brought the idea to realization in
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
workingmen, however organized, can be shattered and splintered at a single
stroke." Their vehicle would be their own party -- a socialist party that
Debs set out to organize with the same intense energy he had devoted to
organizing the ARU. 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, profit ... the end of class
struggles and class rule, 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
obvious 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 ran from behind bars
the last and most successful of 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 age 70, still arguing
for what he fervently believed was needed to eradicate poverty and
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 aiding Americans that few people in or out of public office could come
close to matching.
Copyright 2001 Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco who has
covered labor and political affairs for four decades as a reporter, editor