He was never a lawyer but Eugene "Gene" Victor Debs contributions to labor law were truly phenomenal.
Born in 1855 in Indiana, Debs was named after two French enlightenment figures, Eugene Sey and Victor Hugo.1
As a student, he became a fan of Karl Marx and, later, an avowed socialist.
Of his personal values, Debs once said:
"Years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth... While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
Between about 1870 and 1874, Eugene Debs was a railway worker and later, as a railway company clerk. Debs was a card-carrying Democrat in his early political life but later, as a socialist, ran for President of the United States.
But his significant role in the development of labor law and the rights of workers everywhere, came while he was heavily involved in the then-fledgling union movements in the United States, a nation very much at the beck and call of extremely rich men, sometimes called "robber barons". These included J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and the owner of the Pullman Palace Car Company, the largest railway car company in the United States at the time, George Pullman.
Pullman had a business plan that was, if nothing else, creative. He built a company town around his factory in Illinois, named it after himself and made it a requirement that the workers live there (and pay rent to their employer, guess who?). Some historians have said of the town of Pullman (now a suburb of Chicago), that it was "a version of the Indian reservation system."2
Gene Debs was a founder of the American Railway Union (ARU) in 1894. The ARU, even before its first convention, was besieged with reports from Pullman as to the unfairnesses of the company towards its employees including a unilateral; 25% cut in wages in 1893, while all of the world reeled from a great economic depression. This, in spite of a discreet increase in the annual dividend payment Pullman sent to his stockholders.
The workers at Pullman contacted the ARU and Debs paid the town a visit. With Debs in command, the ARU agreed with the suggestion made by Pullman workers, and called for a boycott of all trains in America pulling Pullman cars. It was a risky move but the ARU fell behind its new members from Pullman.
Train traffic in and out of Chicago collapsed almost immediately. The press, owned by smaller tycoons, came out in Pullman's side calling Debs a "dictator" and "King Debs". The New York Times called Debs "an enemy of the human race". The cover of the popular magazine, Harper's Weekly had an image of Debs sitting on an idle Chicago railway yard, wearing a crown.
Railroad owners hired security firms to break the strike and violence broke out. US President Grover Cleveland sent in the federal militia, railway cars were set on fire and inevitably, gun fire broke out. The courts helped out in issuing an injunction on this basis:
"… (that) the interstate transportation of persons and property, as well as the carriage of the mails, is forcibly obstructed, and that a combination and conspiracy exists to subject the control of such transportation to the will of the conspirators."
This led to Debs being arrested with other boycott leaders on July 17, 1894, and jailed. This broke the union as Debs later described:
"Once we were taken from the scene of action, and restrained from sending telegrams or issuing orders or answering questions, then the minions of the corporations would be put to work..
"Our headquarters were temporarily demoralized and abandoned, and we could not answer any messages. The men went back to work, and the ranks were broken, and the strike was broken up, … not by the army, and not by any other power, but simply and solely by the action of the United States courts in restraining us from discharging our duties as officers and representatives of our employees."3
Clarence Darrow signed up as Debs' lawyer and argued the case before the Supreme Court of the United States in March of 1895, to release Debs and his union brethren from their prison cells (In re Debs, 158 US 564 (1895)). The decision went against the union, with Justice David Josiah Brewer writing:
"A most earnest and eloquent appeal was made to us in eulogy of the heroic spirit of those who threw up their employment, and gave up their means of earning a livelihood, not in defence of their own rights, but in sympathy for and to assist others whom they believed to be wronged. We yield to none in our admiration of any act of heroism or self-sacrifice, but we may be permitted to add that it is a lesson which cannot be learned too soon or too thoroughly that under this government of and by the people the means of redress of all wrongs are through the courts and at the ballot-box, and that no wrong, real or fancied, carries with it legal warrant to invite as a means of redress the cooperation of a mob, with its accompanying acts of violence."
Still, Eugene Victor Debs was released in 1895 an avowed and committed socialist and dedicated himself to the start-up of a number of institutions now prominent in the American politics and international labor law such as Social Democracy of America, the Social Democratic Party of the United States, the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
In 1918, just s World War I loomed, Eugene Debs directed his very effective speaking talents at the federal government. One speech, later analyzed by the federal government, resulted in Debs being charged with sedition, he was charged with having:
"… caused and incited and attempted to cause and incite insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny and refusal of duty in the military and naval forces of the United States".
These words meant he was convicted and even though he was 63, he was given a 10-year prison term (also disenfranchised for life meaning he could never again vote again in America). At his sentencing he told the court:
"Your honor, I ask no mercy, I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never more fully comprehended than now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom. I can see the dawn of a better day of humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into their own."
His conviction was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States who, again, ruled against him and upheld both the conviction and sentence.
Over time, calls went out that Debs be pardoned bringing this remark this from President Woodrow Wilson:
"This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration."
But in 1921, Debs was released, without a pardon but with a commuted sentence. He was 66.
In 1924, Eugene Debs was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by a Finnish national and fellow socialist.
In 1926, Debs died of heart failure, at the age of 70. Today, his home in Terre Haute, Indiana has the designation of a National Historic Landmark, and a website (http://debsfoundation.org/)
In 1990, the U.S. Department of Labor named Debs a member of its Labor Hall of Honor.
In the legacy of Eugene Debs there is much more than a speech here, a prison term there, and nor did he push the plow of labor rights by himself. But on countless occasions he said what had to be said, urged on his nervous union leaderships to do what was right in spite of the overwhelming force and might of the wealthy in America of his generation. In this, he always put himself on front lines and paid the prices that were collateral to his duties as a social justice crusader: jail, fines, ridicule in the press … but also the heavy personal cost of not just those personal injuries but also of being necessarily loud and alone at the front of a still unawares and very suspicious population as slowly, the American citizen became aware of the importance of unions and of worker rights.
► Duhaime.org wants to thank and acknowledges the assistance in making this legal information article available online, the Eugene V. Debs Foundation of Terre Haute, Indiana, in the permission to use the dramatic black and white photograph of Mr. Debs at his oratory best, above.
- Debs v United States, 249 US 211 (1919)
- In re Debs, 158 US 564 (1895).
- NOTE 1: Social Justice, at http://debsfoundation.org/socialjustice.html, retrieved from the Internet on 17-SEP-2013.
- NOTE 2: Zinn, Howard, A People's History of the United States
- NOTE 3: In re Debs, 158 US 564 (1895), op. cit., at page 598.