by Robert G. Rodden

Debs and the American Railway Union

O'Connell barely assumed his new office when he was challenged by a new union, the American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene V. Debs, one time locomotive fireman, became the foremost Socialist of his day and remains a legendary folk hero to many working people. The ARU sought to organize

He [Debs] was the Socialist Party's candidate for President five times, from 1900 to 1920. His platform called for public ownership of railroads, telegraphs, public utilities and mines. Eventually Debs came to believe that nothing less than public ownership of all means of production and distribution would end the industrial inequities and horrors he saw all around him.
railroad workers into one big union without regard to craft or class. Debs believed that he could unite skilled and unskilled workers behind a more militant (and political) leadership than they could get from the more conservative, mostly AFL-affiliated, brotherhoods. The ARU attracted widespread sympathy and support from IAM members, especially those employed against the Great Northern Railroad, many members of the IAM, whose own strikes had failed during these depressed years, flocked to join the ARU.

O'Connell naturally resented and resisted the invasion of the IAM's membership. his opposition to Deb's brand of "industrial unionism" was philosophic as well as practical. Having seen the swift deterioration of the Knights of Labor he sincerely believed that unionism had to be based on craft, that the strength of worker organizations derived from the special skills, not the sheer numbers of the members.

When Debs led a strike against the Pullman Company in Chicago in May, 1894 many IAM members rallied in support of the walkout. The ARU seemed to offer working people a stronger response than craft unionism to the hated railroad bosses.

The Pullman strike remains one of the landmarks in American labor history. The workers in Pullman's factories had been squeezed into virtual economic peonage. Company rules required them to live in company houses and buy at company stores. Company police watched their every move. Their long-smoldering animosity exploded when George Pullman haughtily told them, "Workers have nothing to do with the amount of wages they receive." In the strike that followed Gompers and the AFL remained "neutral" but grass roots support sprung up spontaneously among railroad workers on more than twenty lines running out of Chicago. Within a month 125,000 workers, including thousands of IAM members, joined a boycott against trains hauling Pullman cars. One eminent labor historian, Selig Perlman, has call the Pullman strike, " The only attempt ever made in America of a revolutionary strike on the continental European model." According to a later report in the Journal, "Mobs destroyed Pullman cars, attacked strikebreakers, and flouted the blanket injunction issued by the federal government."

The end result was the same as the Homestead strike two years earlier. The superior economic power of the employer was further strengthened by the political force of the state. The strike was broken when President Grover Cleveland dispatched federal troops to keep the mail cars moving. Debs was sent to jail and the ARU was smashed. According to Pete Conlon, who later wrote a series of memoirs about the early days for the Journal, the Pullman strike not only destroyed the ARU, but "very nearly wrecked the IAM as well."

Although the total defeat and destruction of the industrially-organized ARU confirmed O'Connell's faith in craft unionism, many members became radicalized, especially in the West. Both in convention debates and in letters written to the Journal, members freely voiced support for Socialist political action and industrial unionism. Reflecting membership sentiment, the Grand Lodge Convention in 1893 called for public ownership of railroads and telegraph and telephone companies.

Opposition to industrial unionism became less rigid as new technology continued to narrow the gap between machinists and machine tenders. Increasingly, employers could substitute machine tenders--who had to learn little more than which button to push and which lever to pull--for journeymen who had invested years of rigorous apprenticeship in learning their trade.

Changing conditions helped to persuade many journey men that the IAM's stiff membership requirements would have to be relaxed. Though the skills of specialists and helpers might be limited, they were competing for machinists jobs. Moreover, with the new technology, employers could break strikes by dividing the jobs of journeymen into simple operations performed by specialists. Gradually the barriers of exclusion gave way. The first to to, in the IAM Constitution at least, was the color barrier.

Burying the Color Bar



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Greg Enright