Happy Birthday, Eugene Debs, Labor Leader
- by Jennifer Ferris, findingDulcinea, New York
Long after leaving the railroad, Debs continued his involvement with that union and began to help organize local chapters of other labor unions for railroad workers as well as painters and carpenters. In 1893, he founded his own union, the American Railway Union, which quickly signed up thousands of members. After successfully striking against the Great Northern Railroad in 1894, union members decided to support striking Pullman Palace Car workers by boycotting the Pullman cars on all union lines.
The resulting strike, which Debs initially opposed, shut down a good deal of commerce and even delayed the U.S. Postal Service. President Grover Cleveland ordered intervention by the army and 30 people were killed and many more were harmed during the resulting riots. Debs was sent to prison for six months at Woodstock, Illinois, for his role in the strike.
While in jail, Debs was visited by future Congressman Victor Berger, who left behind a pamphlet on socialism. Debs became convinced that labor unions could not truly protect the needs of the working person and he became a socialist.
After his release, Debs founded the Social Democratic Party of America, which would in 1900 become the Socialist Party of America. Many who had admired his strength as a union leader joined his party. Debs became the party’s perennial presidential candidate, waging loud campaigns he did not intend to win as a mechanism for spreading his message on the dangers of unbridled capitalism. He also organized the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW); popularly known as the “Wobblies,” this all-inclusive union was intended to employ mass strikes to take control of industries.