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August 1991, Vol. 114, No. 8
Eugene V. Debs: an American paradox
J. Robert Constantines
Eugene Victor Debs played an important role in popularizing ideas and ideals which were denounced as radical, even "un-American," in the early part of the 20th century. These ideas later were considered orthodox and are now viewed as traditional. His career marked an honorable chapter in the history of American dissent, a history significantly enhanced by Debs' willingness to pay a heavy price for holding unpopular views.
Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on November 5, 1855. His parents had emigrated from Alsace, France, in 1849 and settled in Terre Haute soon thereafter. Debs left school when he was 14 years old and took a job in the Terre Haute railroad shop, which paid him 50 cents a day for scraping grease and paint off locomotives. In 1871, he became a locomotive fireman. He joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in 1875, and soon began serving as an organizer and recording secretary for the union. He was elected associate editor of the Firemen's Magazine at the national convention held in 1878. In 1880, he was elected as the national secretary-treasurer of the union and editor of the Firemen's Magazine.
Debs served as city clerk of Terre Haute from 1879 to 1883. He was elected to the Indiana legislature in 1885. His public service appeared not to have interfered with his dedication to the interests of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and during the 1880's, he gained recognition as an effective union organizer and labor journalist. In addition to organizing numerous Firemen' s locals, Debs also organized locals for the Brotherhood of Railroad Brakemen, the Switchmen's Mutual Aid Association, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, and the Order of Railway Telegraphers. He also assisted in the organization of carpenters' and painters' locals in Terre Haute and in other Indiana cities and responded to calls for help in organizing miners' locals.
Frustrated by the failure of the railroad brotherhoods to maintain solidarity in their dealings with management, especially during strikes, Debs resigned as secretary-treasurer in 1892. In 1893, he founded and became president of the American Railway Union.
This excerpt is from an article published in the August 1991 issue of the Monthly Labor Review. The full text of the article is available in Adobe Acrobat's Portable Document Format (PDF). See How to view a PDF file for more information.
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