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450 S Michigan Ave, AUD 1851
Chicago IL 60605
United States


Illinois Labor History Society

Labor History Articles

Gene Debs and the American Railway Union

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Under Locomotive Fireman Gene Debs' leadership, the American Railway Union (ARU) was formed in Chicago on June 20, 1893 as a single organization representing all crafts of railroad employees.

Within the year the ARU had 125 locals, as thousands rushed to join the new type of union. Whole lodges of established craft unions voted to affiliate with the ARU---and just in time for a fight!

The Great Northern Railroad had begun cutting wages in August of 1893, with more cuts made in January and in March of 1894. In April, ARU workers voted to strike. The Great Northern was completely shut down for 18 days, and wages were restored as a result of an arbitration award. Workers were joining the ARU at the rate of 2,000 a day!

The Pullman Palace Car workers were among them. The Pullman shop workers went on a strike of their own (also against wage cuts) in May of 1894. After hearing a stirring address by Jennie Curtis, the youthful leader of the women workers in the Pullman Shops, a convention of the American Railway Union voted to support the Pullman workers by refusing to work any trains that included Pullman cars.

Thus, the Pullman Strike escalated into a nation-wide struggle between the railroad companies and the ARU. The union boycott of Pullman cars was extremely effective, particularly on the transcontinental lines extending west from Chicago.

The Railroad Managers however, had an association of their own, and they saw an opportunity to crush the infant ARU. Their strategy was to order Pullman cars hooked to U.S. Mail trains. The ARU members would then refuse to work the mail train. This development quickly brought the government into the case on the side of the Railroad Managers.

Over the objections of Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld President Cleveland ordered federal troops into Chicago and other points to insure the passage of the mail trains. Mobs assaulted the strikebreakers and troops. The court issued an injunction against the ARU and its forbade its leaders to communicate with the members (not even to order a stop to the violence!). Debs was arrested for alleged conspiracy to interfere with the mail and violation of the injunction. He was jailed for six months in rural Woodstock, Illinois, far from Chicago where it was feared that there might be mass demonstrations in protest.

The boycott collapsed and the American Railway Union was destroyed, just as the Railway Managers had planned. The strike at Pullman, also, ended in defeat for the union.

There are some interesting sidelights to this study in power relationships.

President Cleveland's Attorney General, who handled the government's intervention was Richard Olney, a former railroad attorney.
A Special Counsel was appointed by Cleveland (no doubt on Olney's advice) to deal on the ground with the ARU boycott. The Special Counsel was Edward Walker, attorney for the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad.
Debs' defense attorney was Clarence Darrow. Darrow had been an attorney for one of the railroads, but resigned in disgust and offered his services to Debs. He went on to become a renowned defender of labor unions under legal attack.
While in the Woodstock jail, Debs concluded that labor needed to have its own political power. Accordingly, he became a socialist, and the presidential standard bearer for the Socialist Party for the rest of his life, at one point garnering over a million votes while he was actually in federal prison for opposition to America's entry into World War I.


* The Pullman Strike, by Lindsey Almont*
* Touring Pullman, by William Adelman*
* The Pullman Strike, by William Carwardine*
* Story of Pullman Strike (Juvenile)*
* Palace Car Prince, by Leyendecker
* Eagle Forgotten, by Harry Barnard*
* E.V.Debs, by Bernard Brommel*

* Available from ILHS by mail order purchase

Things to Do:

A field trip to the Pullman neighborhood in Chicago will be very rewarding. George Pullman's model town remains very much as it was 100 years ago. It is architecturally intact, including the Florence Hotel where you can still get an excellent Sunday brunch. Get a copy of Adelman's Touring Pullman, and walk the streets with this little guide book. You will stop at the Greenstone Church, find the houses of the strike leaders, the company doctor, and so on. Group visits should contact the Historic Pullman Foundation, 773-785-8181. They can arrange for guides.

Students interested in Pullman Strike projects may consult the Illinois Labor History Society.