Debs Was First Rail Trade Unionist To Champion Unity

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Eugene V. Debs went to work on his first railroad job at 15 and although in later years his interests turned to politics the railroad fever never left him.

As a locomotive fireman, Debs successively became an international officer of the Firemen's union, assisted in founding the Trainmen's union and organized the American Railway Union in the first attempt at industry-wide unionism.

He was the Socialist candidate for U.S. President in five elections, and he spent more than three years in a federal penitentiary for his uncompromising opposition to America's entry into World War I.

Debs was born November 5, 1855, at Terre Haute, Indiana. At 25 he became a national officer of the young Firemen's union when he was elected editor and general secretary-treasurer.

Unionism was spreading fast in those early years of hardship for workers, and Debs' reputation as a fighter for laboring men spread with it. The young labor leader was an effective speaker, and he put his talent to good use. He believed that labor was abused and downtrodden, and he dedicated his life to improving the welfare of the working man.

Debs would not compromise his ideals. This trait brought him much admiration from union members, but it also brought him much trouble when he fought against "the establishment." His American Railway Union foundered and died after the U.S. Government sided with the railroads and broke the "Pullman Strike" with armed force.

Later Debs suffered through years of prison life upon being convicted on a federal sedition charge after a fiery anti-war speech at Canton, Ohio.

Debs and his brother were leaders in organizing and building the early railroad unions. When eight railroad brakemen at Oneonta, New York, wanted advice on organizing the BRT in September 1883, they sent for "Gene" Debs for guidance. The dedicated unionist, who usually traveled with the crew members on locomotives and in cabooses to save expenses, helped the trainmen organize BRT Lodge 1, in gratitude, the men named the first BRT lodge after Debs.

Debs resigned as GS&T of the Firemen before he organized the ARU because he "could not conscientiously serve in both capacities," as he said.

After persuasion, he continued as BLF&E editor for a few additional years.

After the ARU died, ending Debs' dream of a great industry-wide union, he became disillusioned and turned Socialist as the only way to improve the working man's lot against the forces of management allied with government. He became a Socialist Party leader and was candidate for U.S. President in five elections: 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. His national popularity was dramatically demonstrated when he drew more than a million votes for President in the 1920 election while a prisoner in the penitentiary in Atlanta.

Debs was given a 10 year prison sentence when convicted on the sedition charge in 1918. Public pressure for his release rose to such a high pitch across the country that President Harding commuted his sentence on Christmas Eve in 1921.

Debs was then 66 year old and his health had been broken. The fire had left his eyes and the strength was gone from his voice. Although his spirit and his resoluteness were never broken, Debs' fighting days were near the end. He retired to his home in Terre Haute where he died on October 20, 1926.

The fame of Eugene V. Debs grows with the years. His home in Terre Haute has been restored and is now a national shrine. A national award for service to the nation in the fields of labor and public service has been named in his honor and is presented annually. Memorial services are held at Debs grave annually and a bronze statue of the old warrior has been erected at Indiana State University. A fitting tribute to Gene Debs was voiced recently by Debs Foundation President Patrick Gorman. "This man took a position, and there he stood. He followed his conscience and would not betray his friends or fellow workers. And that is why we shall forever honor him and his place in history," said Gorman.


1877 Several railroads cut wages 10%, setting off strikes and riots. Over 100 strikers were killed and several hundred were wounded. Federal troops, under order of President Hayes, quelled the disturbances. The stage was set for stronger organization of railroad labor.

1893 Official counts showed 18,343 railroad workers were injured on the job and another 1657 were killed that year. There was no legal redress for injuries or deaths resulting from negligence on the part of their employers. ... The first target of railroad labor's legislative campaign, began in 1869, was safety. Its first victory was the enactment of the Safety Appliance Act of 1893. Among other things, the act outlawed the "old man-killer link-and-pin coupler" which alone was responsible for 3 1 0 deaths and 8753 injuries to railroad workers that year.

1894 First convention of Deb's American Railway Union endorsed Pullman strike, declared boycott against Pullman equipment. This paralyzed many carriers across the United States. Federal, State and Local militia patrolled Chicago yards as hundreds of cars were burned. Troops killed about a dozen strikers and wounded scores. About 14,000 law agents guarded Chicago railroads and thousands more stood duty along 41,000 miles of U.S. track before the strike was finally broken that summer.

1898 The Erdman Act provided for mediation and voluntary arbitration on the railroads. It made it a criminal offense for railroads to dismiss employees or to discriminate against prospective employees because of their union membership or activity. ... Legal protection of employees' rights to membership in a labor union, a limit on the use of injunctions in labor disputes, lawful status of picketing and other union activities, and requirement of employers to bargain collectively.

1908 Federal Employers' Liability Act passed on April 22. 1910 Accident Reports Act passes on May 6. A 10-hour work day and standardization of rates of pay and working conditions were won by the Railroad Brotherhoods.

1911 Locomotive Inspection Act passed on February 17.

1916 Hours of Service Act passed on September 3. The Railroad Brotherhoods won an 8-hour day

1918 Eight-hour day becomes law in Canada on September 1.

1920 Rail employment reached a high of two million workers. Control of the railroads by the government, a wartime measure, ceased in 1920.

1926 Railway Labor Act passed May 20. It required employers, for the first time and under penalty of law, to bargain collectively and not to discriminate against their employees for joining a union. It provided also for mediation, voluntary arbitration, fact-find boards, "cooling off' periods and adjustment boards.

1935 Wagner Act passed July 5. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 followed the example of the Railway Labor Act, and clearly established the right of all workers to organize and to elect their representative for collective bargaining.

1936 Washington Job Protection Agreement, May 21.

1937 Railroad Retirement Act passed on June 24.

1938 Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act passed June 25.

1940 Transportation Act passed on September 18.

1946 Wartime wage and salary controls were ended. The Brotherhoods struck for two days and won their part of the "first round" of wage increases.

1950 The Federal Government took over operation of the railroads as an emergency measure during the Korean War.

1951 Union Shop Amendment RLA passed on January 10.

1952 Federal operation of the railroads was brought to an end. Other operating employees and the carriers reached an agreement on wage increases and working rules.

1964 Mass Transportation Act passed on July 9.

1967 Department of Transportation inaugurated on April 1.

From: IA UTU YEARBOOK 2000-2001 (Pages 35 - 37)

If you or a loved one have suffered a work injury or wrongful death on the railroad, call an experienced FELA lawyer / railroad injury attorney at Hoey & Farina, P.C. at 1-888-425-1212, or complete this form, for your FREE CONSULTATION. Hoey & Farina represents clients throughout the United States.


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