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Fellow Worker Eugene V Debs

Eugene Victor Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1855. Between 1871 and 1883 he was a locomotive fireman on the Terre Haute and Indianapolis Railroad, a wholesale grocery salesman, and city clerk of Terre Haute.

In 1885 he served as a member of the Indiana legislature, he was a member of the Democratic Party. Debs worked as editor of the Locomotive Firemen's Magazine, before being elected national secretary of Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman in 1880.He was grand secretary and treasurer of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen from 1880 to 1893, when he resigned to organize and become president (1893-97) of the American Railway Union.

Under his leadership the union won an important strike on the Great Northern Railway in 1894. In the same year, having espoused the cause of the poorly paid Pullman workers, the union brought about a shutdown of the western roads. This strike was broken by the interference of the federal courts and by the action of President Grover Cleveland, based on the right of the federal government to maintain the uninterrupted transmission of the mails. Debs was arrested first upon a charge of conspiracy to murder, but the charge was never pressed. In July 1894 Debs and the other officers of the union were arrested on the charge of violating an injunction. Despite being defended by Clarence Darrow, he was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison.

Debs's introduction to socialism began during his imprisonment in the Woodstock, Illinois, jail, where he was visited by the American Socialist editor Victor Berger and given Marx's Das Kapital and other Socialist works to read. In 1898, along with Victor Berger and Ella Reeve Bloor, Debs organized the Social Democratic Party of America and, as its candidate for president (1900), he received 96,116 votes. In an attempt to unify the socialist movement, in 1901 the Social Democratic Party merged with Socialist Labor Party to form the Socialist Party of America. These organizations were also instrumental in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World a few years leater.

Fellow Worker Debs was present at the founding covention of the IWW in 1905, and remained active in the organization thorughout its early years. During that period, he spent a large amount of his time as lecturer and organizer in the Socialist movement. He was the candidate of the Socialist Party for president in 1904, 1908, and 1912, when with his running-mate, Emil Seidel, he won 897,011 votes. During World War I Debs was sentenced to ten years in jail for his anti war and anti imperialist beliefs.

Debs maintained that the First World War had been caused by the imperialist competitive system. Between 1914 and 1917 Debs made several speeches explaining why he believed the United States should not join the war. After the USA 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 16th June, 1918, criticizing the Espionage Act, Debs was arrested and sentenced to ten years in Atlanta Penitentiary. He was still in prison when as the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, he received 919,799 votes in 1920. His program included proposals for improved labour conditions, housing and welfare legislation and an increase in the number of people who could vote in elections. President Warren G. Harding pardoned Debs in December, 1921.

As one of the first targets of so-called government by injunction, and because of his personality, Debs commanded the respect of American unionists and radicals, even those who did not accept his economic doctrines. Critical of the dictatorial policies of the Soviet Union, Debs refused to ally himself with the American Communist Party. His writings include a widely read speech, "Industrial Unionism" (1911), and Walls and Bars (1927). Eugene Victor Debs died in 1926 and was replaced by Norman Thomas as leader of the Socialist Party.

Further Information About Eugene Debs:

  • Eugene V. Debs an American Paradox - by J. Robert Constantine - Monthly Labor Review, August 1991 - PDF Version