E.V. Debs & the American Railway Union


E.V. Debs & the American Railway Union


“About the Union: Debs on the Organization: Chat with a Reporter — Rapid Work in the Field — Getting the West Solidly Organized — Clerks Joining.” [Jan. 1, 1894] — Reprint from the Terre Haute Express of an article about the fledgling American Railway Union and its President, Terre Haute native son Eugene V. Debs. The ARU is summarized by the unnamed reporter as a “gigantic movement to consolidate under one banner all branches of railway service.” Back from an organizing tour of the Western United States, Debs characterizes the new union as one “growing so rapidly we cannot attend to the work of organization as promptly as we would like.” Debs envisions the new union as a federation of all categories of railway workers, workers who, unless so federated, would be unable to cope with the unified system of about 20 big railways in America and their subsidiaries. Debs notes that the ARU would not expel members for non-payment of dues and placed hope for the success of the union in the organization of railway clerks, who were among the worst paid railway workers despite their often critical job function.


“The Pullman Strike: All Quiet At the Model Town, All Alive: The Model People of a Slave Ranch — Friends — to the Rescue — Starvation as a Weapon.” (article from Railway Times) [June 1, 1894] — Early account of the strike of the workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company in the “model” company town of Pullman, outside the jurisdiction of Chicago, as published in the official organ of the American Railway Union. A rather simple dichotomy is painted of the incident, one said to pit “well-behaved,” “fine,” “self-reliant” citizen-workers on the one side against “those in whom the hog” largely predominated. George Pullman was said to be bolstered in his position materially by millionaire investor Marshall Field and morally by Queen Victoria of Great Britain, said to be a stockholder in Pullman&8217;s concern, according to the unnamed writer. Pullman is accused of conducting a model town “game” organized in such as way as to provide him with financial benefits. Already after three weeks he is accused of attempting to starve strikers back to work, with the allegation levied that direct intervention was made with wholesale grocers to cut credit to the retail grocers who were in turn lending credit to striking workers. Efforts to move to arbitration of the stoppage by the Chicago Civic Federation are noted. In the wake of resistance to multiple wage cuts, the writer contends that the strikers had their backbone stiffened and lost their shackles forever. “If Pullman is to be in the future a rosy-surfaced slave pen, the men who stand out today will not fill it,” the writer declares.


“President’s Keynote Address to the 1st National Convention of the American Railway Union: Ulrich’s Hall, Chicago — June 12, 1894,” by Eugene V. Debs — Much is made about Debs&8217; 1895 “jail house conversion” to Marxian socialism owing to the efforts of Victor Berger of Milwaukee. This massive speech, weighing in at nearly 6,000 words, reveals a radical labor leader even before the first word of socialist propaganda was ingested. Debs details the origins of the ARU in June 1893, frustrated as he was by the “dismal failures” of previous organizations of railway employees to provide “protection” of workers against “corporate power.” After a year of painstaking work building the new organization, some 425 local unions affiliated with the ARU had emerged, Debs notes. Debs declares common cause of railway workers with striking coal miners and hails the desperate plight of the unemployed members of Coxey&8217;s Army as labor&8217;s own. He offers the 8-hour day as a means of creating tens of thousands of jobs and thereby helping to bring “peace, prosperity, and contentment” to the depression-wracked nation. Debs lauds the ARU&8217;s successful 18 day strike against the Great Northern Railroad, and attacks George Pullman, magnate of the Pullman Palace Car Co., as a greedy and soulless “intimate friend of his satanic majesty, he of the forked tail and cloven foot.” Debs hails the future nationalization of American railroads as a “great undertaking” which appeared increasingly “practical and patriotic” and a change which would offer benefits for greater society and railroad workers alike.


“Resolution on the Knights of Labor by the American Railway Union: Adopted by the 1st National Convention of the ARU, Chicago, June 12-23, 1894.” — Resolution by the assembled delegates of the American Railway Union (headed by Eugene V. Debs) pledging common cause with the Knights of Labor organization. According to the resolution, these two organizations were “founded upon the same principles of eternal right and justice and the common brotherhood of man” and that therefore that these two groups shall have “affiliated and joined their interests for the purpose of placing the members of both organizations in a close bond of harmony to the best interests of the world of labor.” The resolution was adopted by the convention at its afternoon session on June 13, 1894.


“Notice to the Officers and Members of the Knights of Labor regarding the Pullman Palace Car Boycott, from James R. Sovereign, — Grand Master Workman.” [circa June 26, 1894]. — This open letter from the National Secretary ("Grand Master Workman") of the Knights of Labor to the membership of that organization emphasizes the close relationship between the KoL and the American Railway Union headed by Eugene V. Debs. The decision of the ARU to begin a boycott of all “cars and equipment” of the Pullman Palace Car Company is announced. “The orders of the Knights of Labor and the American Railway Union are affiliated and are working together in unison and harmony in all things in which their mutual interests are involved,” Sovereign notes, adding, “The time has come for unity of action.” Since the ARU had worked to expand the network of local assemblies of the KoL, the time had come to pay back the favor, Sovereign intimates. “You are hereby urgently requested to not only prosecute with all possible power the boycott against the Pullman palace cars but all railway corporations aiding said Pullman Company,” Sovereign declares.


“Appeal to the — Railway Employees of America: Chicago — June 29, 1894,” by Eugene V. Debs — Open letter from the President of the American Railway Union to the railway workers of America with regards to the escalating strike situation between railroad workers and the Pullman Palace Car Company. Although purportedly a year prior to his first exposure to socialist literature, Debs&8217;s fundamental orientation here rests upon the notion of a class struggle, a “contest between the producing classes and the money power of the country.” Debs asserts this fight between a “heartless corporation” and workers who took home “barely sufficient wages to live” a fulfillment of a gloomy prognostication of Abraham Lincoln. Convinced that public sentiment was already with the ARU, Debs urges strikers to avoid violence. He takes a harsh stance against those who would use the tactic of sabotage, declaring “A man who will destroy property or violate law is an enemy and not a friend to the cause of labor.” Debs expresses confidence that the Pullman strike will be won.


Proclamation to American Railway Union (1895)


You Railway Men (1906) [PDF version of original pamphlet]


Railroad Employees and Socialism (1908)


“The People’s Party.” (Editorial in The Railway Times). [Sept. 15, 1894] — This editorial in the official organ of the American Railway Union officially endorses the People&8217;s Party (so-called “Populists") as “the only party uncompromisingly opposed to the government as it stands.” The editorialist declares that the People&8217;s Party is “the only party which is the deadly enemy of trusts and corporations, and the steadfast friend of the producers” and urges a united labor vote for the new organization. This endorsement was made particularly urgent in the aftermath of the failed Pullman Strike, the editorialist opines, since the use of the strike alone had proven insufficient to “protect labor from the robbing corporations now solidly united.” The program of the People&8217;s Party is admitted to be imperfect, the editorial acknowledges, and the party wracked by factionalism, but at root all divisions within the People&8217;s Party were united around the central principle of “a government by the people,” a notion seemingly abandoned by the old parties.


Railroad Unions General Strike:Debs Says Concerted Action of Rail Unions Can Bring Victory to All Strikers (1922)