On May 11, 1894 one of the greatest battles in American labor history erupted as employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company walked off of their jobs to protest wage cuts. When Eugene V. Debs and the American Railway Union took up their cause with a national boycott of trains with Pullman cars, the strike went nationwide. National Guard and Federal troops were called in to suppress the strike and “move the mails.”
1894 was the nadir of one of those devastating financial panics that erupted with regularity in the 19th Century. Just outside of Chicago George Pullman, a pious and leading lay Universalist famous as a benevolent and paternalistic employer, deeply cut the wages of the thousands of employees at his railway sleeping car factory. But he did not also reduce the rents he charged his workers for their homes in his model community or the prices at the company stores, which were the only ones allowed to operate in the Town of Pullman.
Some workers found their wages reduced below what they owed in rent. Workers complained that, “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell.”
When a committee went to petition Pullman for relief, they were all summarily fired. The workers, who had not been organized by any union, went out on strike. They petitioned Debs and the ARU for assistance. Despite the misgivings of some of his associates, Debs felt that the union owed the Pullman workers support.
The ARU was just coming off of a highly successful strike against the Great Northern Railroad in which the united power of all workers organized in a single industrial union instead of divided between skilled craft unions members and unorganized laborers was demonstrated. The prestige of Debs and his union among working people was undisputed.
Debs ordered a boycott of all trains carrying a Pullman Palace Car. Ordinarily, this would have affected only long distance passenger service. But the railroad companies, seeing an opportunity, attached Pullman cars to all mail trains.
The strike eventually involved some 250,000 workers in 27 states at its peak. Violence erupted across the country as workers determined to keep trains from moving. Hundreds of rail cars were destroyed and there were pitched battles between armed railroad guards, police and National Guardsmen on one side and strikers on the other.
Debs and the ARU Executive Board were charged with conspiracy to interfere with the mails.
President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops in to “insure that the mails move.” This was done despite the pleas of fellow Democrat, Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld, who assured the President that local and state forces could handle the situation.
Federal troops arrived in Chicago on July 6. U.S. Army cavalry “escorted” strike breakers moving trains in Chicago and other cities, charging strikers with drawn sabers. Within days the boycott and the strike in Pullman were crushed and the ARU shattered.
Debs and other leaders were tried and convicted of contempt of court for interfering with the mails and sentenced to jail. Fearing that mobs of workers would attack the Cook County Jail in Chicago and free the men, authorities whisked Debs and his associates to sleepy Woodstock, nearly 50 northwest of the city and presumed to be safe.
But Debs’ stay in the Woodstock jail was far from unpleasant. Sheriff George Eckert, like Debs of Alsatian heritage, promptly made Debs and his associates trustees. They often gathered on chairs in front of the jail to conduct education and self-improvement sessions. Debs was very fond of the Sheriff’s children and sometime watched them for the family. In return, Mrs. Eckert fed the prisoners sumptuous home cooked meals.
Debs conducted the business of his dying union from the jail and entertained a string of visitors from around the country. Among them was a Milwaukee socialist and future U.S. Representative, Victor Berger, who brought volumes of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital newly translated into English for the first time and published in Chicago by Charles H. Kerr & Co. Armed with this and other books like Edward Bellamy’s popular novel Looking Backward, Debs and his friends embarked on a systematic study and a discussion adapted from the Platonic question and response method.
By the time his sentence was up Debs, a Democrat who had served as Terra Haute, Indiana City Clerk and in the Indiana legislature, had become a committed socialist.
When Debs was released from jail on November 22, 1895, he was greeted by the largest crowd ever to assemble in Woodstock, estimated to number about 10,000 and including many local admiring locals. The cheering crowd hoisted him on their shoulders and carried him to the railroad station two blocks away where a special train awaited to take him to Chicago. In the city more than 100,000 thronged to greet him.
Within a few years Debs founded the Socialist Party, an election oriented social democratic party. Four times he was the Party’s nominee for President of the United States, garnering more than three million votes in 1912. Along the way, he was also a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which kept his dream of industrial unionism alive. He was a tireless orator and a gifted writer.
In 1919 he would return to prison under much harsher circumstances after being convicted of giving a speech in opposition to American participation in the First World War. He ran for president a final time as an inmate of the Federal prison at Atlanta.
Despite being pardoned by President Warren G. Harding in 1921, Debs’ health was broken. He died in an Elmhurst, Illinois sanitarium in 1926.