In 1871, a locomotive fireman failed to turn up for work and young Eugene Debs was pressed into service as a night fireman. He continued working as a fireman, on the run between Terre Haute and Indianapolis for the next three and half years. He also attended classes at night at a local business college.
He left his job as a railroad fireman and started working in wholesale grocery firm of Hulman & Cox as a billing clerk in 1874. The next year he became charter member and secretary of Vigo Lodge, Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF) and used his salary to help the local union.
He was very active in BLF and was selected to serve as a delegate of the Terre Haute lodge to the organization's national convention in 1877. The next year he became the elected associate editor of the BLF's monthly organ, ‘Firemen's Magazine’.
He became a prominent figure in the community due to his involvement with the BLF and served two terms as Terre Haute's city clerk from September 1879 to September 1883. In 1880, he was also appointed Grand Secretary and Treasurer of the BLF.
He was elected to the Indiana General Assembly as a Democrat in 1884 and served for one term.
He stepped down as Brotherhood Grand Secretary in 1893 and organized the American Railway Union in Chicago—one of the first industrial unions in United States. The union, led by Debs, conducted a successful strike for higher wages against the Great Northern Railway in April 1894 following which he gained much national prominence.
Later in 1894 Debs became involved in the Pullman Strike, started by the disgruntled workers who constructed the train cars made by the Pullman Palace Car Company. The company had cut the wages of its employees by 28% in the wake of the Panic of 1893 and the workers sought the support of the union members.
The Pullman Strike was a very intense one and soon had 80,000 workers participating in the strike, refusing to handle Pullman cars or any other railroad cars attached to them, including cars containing U.S. Mail. Since Debs was the leader of the strike, it came to be known as "Debs' Rebellion”.
The U.S federal government intervened in the strike as the strikers had obstructed the U.S. Mail, carried on Pullman cars, by refusing to show up for work. President Grover Cleveland sent the U.S. Army to break the strike. An estimated $80 million worth of property was damaged, 13 strikers were killed, and thousands others blacklisted in the ensuing violence.
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Debs was arrested for participating in the strike and sent to federal prison. It was while serving his prison term that Eugene V. Debs became interested in socialist ideals. During the six months he spent in jail, he received several letters and books from socialists around the country and was thoroughly impressed by socialism.
He started his Socialist political career after his release from prison in 1895, and played a major role in the founding of the Social Democracy of America. This group soon split and Debs went with the majority faction to found the Social Democratic Party of the United States, also called the Social Democratic Party.
In 1905, he became one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an international radical labour union. The union was based on the philosophy of "revolutionary industrial unionism", with ties to both socialist and anarchist labour movements.
Between 1907 and 1912, he served as the Associate Editor of the ‘Appeal to Reason’ published in Girard, Kan. The weekly magazine was highly successful and achieved a circulation of several hundred thousand due to his persuasive and powerful writing.
Debs vehemently opposed war and in June 1918, made his famous anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, protesting World War I which was raging in Europe. Following the speech he was arrested and convicted in federal court under the war-time espionage law, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
He had unsuccessfully run for the office of the President of the United States in 1900, 1904, 1908, and 1912. Now in prison, he was once again nominated to run for presidency on the Socialist party ticket in 1920. He received nearly a million votes but was defeated by the Republican, Warren G. Harding. The new president Harding released Debs from prison on Christmas Day, 1921, commuting his sentence to time served.
Personal Life & Legacy
Eugene Debs married Kate Metzel on June 9, 1885. They did not have any children.
On his return from prison, Debs received a hero’s welcome. However, years of confinement had robbed him of his good health and he struggled to recover his health after his release. He still remained active inspite of his failing health and made several speeches and wrote many articles.
He was admitted to Lindlahr Sanitarium in Elmhurst, Illinois in 1926 and died there of heart failure on October 20, 1926, at the age of 70.