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Worker Solidarity, Eugene Debs and Why Labor Day Isn’t International Workers’ Day

A salute to working women and men in America on Labor Day!

Even after 50 years of stagnant wages, union-busting, job outsourcing, and the appalling lapdoggery of politicians in both legacy parties who serve the interests of the modern oligarchs – we are obliged to stand with our fellow workers and acknowledge that our work makes our land. And, remember also that it is not to enrich the selfish wealthy that we work…at least that is what Eugene Debs believed.

“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”

Eugene Debs-1918

Eugene Debs was one of the reasons that our country’s celebration of labor, unlike the rest of the world’s May Day celebration of International Workers’ Day, is at the end of August. So is Chicago and so is the effort to undermine workers’ solidarity by politicians in thrall of oligarchy that has continued unabated since the Labor Day holiday was first established as a federal holiday in the United States in 1894.

In 1894 the workers at the Pullman train car factory in Chicago had their wages reduced during what was to that point America’s most severe depression, which began in 1893. The Pullman workers’ rents and the cost of food that George Pullman charged his workers who lived in Pullman’s very own Foxconn style labor camp were, however, not lowered and the plant’s 4000 non-unionized workers organized a wildcat strike and walked off the job.

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Worker Solidarity, Eugene Debs and Why Labor Day Isn’t International Workers’ Day

A salute to working women and men in America on Labor Day!

Even after 50 years of stagnant wages, union-busting, job outsourcing, and the appalling lapdoggery of politicians in both legacy parties who serve the interests of the modern oligarchs – we are obliged to stand with our fellow workers and acknowledge that our work makes our land. And, remember also that it is not to enrich the selfish wealthy that we work…at least that is what Eugene Debs believed.

I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.

Eugene Debs-1918

Eugene Debs was one of the reasons that our country’s celebration of labor, unlike the rest of the world’s May Day celebration of International Workers’ Day, is at the end of August. So is Chicago and so is the effort to undermine workers’ solidarity by politicians in thrall of oligarchy that has continued unabated since the Labor Day holiday was first established as a federal holiday in the United States in 1894.

In 1894 the workers at the Pullman train car factory in Chicago had their wages reduced during what was to that point America’s most severe depression, which began in 1893. The Pullman workers’ rents and the cost of food that George Pullman charged his workers who lived in Pullman’s very own Foxconn style labor camp were, however, not lowered and the plant’s 4000 non-unionized workers organized a wildcat strike and walked off the job.

Debs had formed a union in 1893 called the American Railroad Union that organized unskilled rail workers across the country. Debs and ARU organizers came to Pullman and many of the company’s workers became members of the union. The aim of the organized workers was to bring Pullman to the negotiation table to work out a compromise, but Pullman (in a distinctly Koch-ian fashion) refused to recognize the union or negotiate with his workers.

Debs called for a massive boycott of Pullman where over 250,000 ARU workers in solidarity with the Pullman workers refused to work on any trains that included Pullman train cars. Workers from the Railroad brotherhoods, the American Federation of Labor and Pullman Porters themselves did not support the boycott. Even so, the ARU and its new members, the Pullman workers, accomplished the halting of railroad traffic in 27 states, from Detroit to the Pacific Ocean.

Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind then that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

Eugene Debs-1918

The associated owners of 24 rail lines that converged in Chicago attempted to break the strike by bringing in scabs to take the jobs of the Pullman strikers. In June of 1894, Debs held a peaceful rally in Blue Island, IL to attempt to convince railroad workers who did not support the Pullman workers to join the boycott, after which some rallyers rioted, burning buildings. Similar destructive acts were carried out across the country by railroad workers who supported the Pullman workers.

Grover Cleveland instructed his Attorney General, Richard Olney, coincidentally a former railroad attorney, to break the strike. The federal government went to court arguing that Debs’ boycott prevented the government from performing its obligation to deliver the mails and that the boycotters violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act by participating in a conspiracy. The feds, using the US Army and 12,000 US Marshalls, fanned out from Chicago to Montana and California and eventually the national strike was ended. In the end, 30 workers were killed, 57 were injured, and all who supported the strike were fired and blacklisted from the industry.

Eugene Debs, represented by Clarence Darrow, was convicted of violating a federal injunction and served six months in prison. During the time that Debs was in prison he read Marx and became a socialist and for America and workers everywhere, to the world was born one of our great political leaders. Debs ran for president as the head of the Socialist Party five times beginning in 1900:

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Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Firedoglake.com. Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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