Unions before the Bar: Historic Trials Showing the Evolution of Labor Rights in the United States

By Elias Lieberman | Go to book overview

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Government by Injunction -- The Pullman Strike 1894-1895)

UNITED STATES v. DEBS

I

In the early history of American labor unions the nation's interest was aroused by a strike which occurred in 1894. The noble efforts of an idealistic union were smashed by the railroads, which enlisted the willing aid of the attorney general of the United States. This is the story of the Pullman strike.

One of the unforgettable leaders of that strike was Eugene V. Debs, or Gene Debs, as he was popularly called by thousands of his admirers. In his early days Debs was a locomotive fireman, and an active member of his union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. He combined a militant zeal for organizing with the idealistic spirit of self-sacrifice for the benefit of the men on the roads. From the post of local secretary of the Terre Haute Lodge, he rose in 1880 to the office of grand secretary and treasurer of the brotherhood and editor in chief of its Locomotive Firemen's Magazine. His efforts and energies were devoted to organizing a powerful union which should command respect from the railroad magnates.

Debs felt that the lack of a central authority among the railroad workers prevented them from presenting a solid front to the railroad; that the railroad workers' organization, based on separate crafts was likely to bring about mutual distrust and dissension among them. The loss of the locomotive engineers' strike against the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad in 1888 convinced Debs that one big union for the railroad workers was essential for their welfare. George W. Howard, the ex-grand chief of the Order of

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