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“...As Warm A Heart As Ever Beat”
Gene Debs was America’s leading socialist, but just about everyone agreed he had
August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
Even Debs was astonished at the immediate and overwhelming response to his union. Within three weeks thirty-four locals had been organized. Not only the unskilled and the unorganized joined, but many carmen, firemen, and even some of the engineers and conductors transferred their lodges in toto , braving the surly resentment of the brotherhood officers. The new union’s first test of strength came when it launched a strike against James Hill’s Great Northern Railroad. The autocratic Hill, who regarded unionism as an infringement on his God-given right to do as he pleased, had already cut wages twice on his line in that depression year. When, from his office in St. Paul, he announced a third cut, Debs called the strike. Within days the Great Northern was brought to a standstill. Seeking a solution to the impasse, the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce asked Debs to state his case. Generally Debs spoke in the florid McKinley-baroque manner of his day, but this time, facing a group of essentially hostile businessmen, he muted his rhetoric to tell them simply and directly what it was like to be a section hand or a brakeman, what it meant to raise a family on a dollar a day. So persuasive was he that he completely won over his audience. A delegation of chamber leaders visited Hill and told him he would have to arbitrate. The arbitrators granted the union almost all its demands. It was a handsome victory for Debs. When his train left St. Paul, after Hill had signed the agreement, the section men stood along the tracks at attention, bare-headed, shovels in hand.
On the heels of his victory over Hill, Debs found himself in an even more formidable confrontation with George M. Pullman, the president of the Pullman Palace Car Company, maker of dining and chair cars as well as the celebrated sleepers. Just outside Chicago, Pullman had built what he considered a model town. So it appeared, in green contrast to the industrial grime of Chicago, with neat brick homes, shaded streets, grassy yards, and even an artificial lake beside which the Pullman band gave summer concerts. But it was Pullman’s town—houses, schools, churches, the luxurious new library, even the cemetery. With the onset of the depression Pullman discharged over a third of his workers and cut the wages of the others by up to half while refusing to lower rents at all. During the bleak and bitter winter of 1893-94 destitution spread along Pullman’s well-planned streets. Many of the tenants all but starved even as the company’s dividends increased. Children lacked shoes to wear to school; some stayed in bed all day to keep warm in the heatless houses.
Because of a few miles of track operated by the Pullman company its workers were eligible for the American Railway Union. In the late spring of 1894 they rushed to join. Their first act was to call a strike, even before Debs had put in an appearance. Debs arrived in Pullman knowing little about conditions there. He was appalled at what he discovered. Yet he was at the same time cautious. His victory over Hill was the only success any union had scored that year. Strike after strike had been broken. Labor was in retreat. Debs knew he could expect little help from the railroad brotherhoods. Rather than risk defeat he preferred to arbitrate. But Pullman refused to sit down at any discussion table. “Nothing to arbitrate” was his stock reply. Pushed along by the indignation of the American Railway Union members and the Pullman workers, Debs finally proposed that switchmen refuse to switch Pullman cars onto trains. At the same time he warned against violence. In response to this the General Managers’ Association, representing the twenty-four railroads running out of Chicago, announced that switchmen who balked at switching Pullman cars would be discharged.
Nevertheless, the boycott began on June 26, 1894, spreading quickly to twenty-seven states and territories in the most extensive strike the country had yet known. More than a hundred thousand men walked out; twenty railroads were shut down. United States Attorney General Richard Olney, a former railroad lawyer and member of the General Managers’ Association, then obtained an injunction against the union and the strikers that was one of the most sweeping and drastic ever issued. Workers who quit interstate jobs were to be considered criminals. Union leaders were forbidden to take part in or even to talk about the boycott.