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Gene Debs, American Hero
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Few American leaders have been more loved and influential, yet more hated than Gene Debs, who died 81 years ago this month -- Eugene V. Debs, a remarkable man whose ideas, whose proposed cures for the economic ills that infect American society, remain as valid, vital and essential as ever.

Union organizer and strike leader, spellbinding orator, founder of the Socialist Party of America, five times a candidate for president -- Debs was all that and more. He realized, back in the late 1880s, that ordinary people were at the mercy of the corporate entities that had come to control the political and economic life of the country. They retain control, of course -- but those seeking to weaken their hold could find no better guide than Debs.

Then, as now, politicians were elected, workers hired, workers fired, working conditions determined, factories opened, factories closed and so many other societal decisions made primarily -- if not solely -- with an eye to maximizing corporate profit. Then, as now, profits, executive compensation and stockholder returns soared as workers' pay declined and unemployment rose.

"March together, vote together and fight together" Debs urged working people faced with the formidable economic and political forces profiting at their expense.

Debs, who became a locomotive firemen at 15 in his hometown of Terre Haute, Ind., tried first to bring all of the country's railroad workers into a single industrial union that would arm them with the key weapon of solidarity denied other unionized workers, who were organized according to trade rather than industry.

The year was 1893. Debs, tall, thin and striking, traveled the country to deliver as many as seven two-hour speeches a week to railroad workers. After just a year, his American Railway Union had 150,000 members, half the strength of the entire American Federation of Labor.

The ARU quickly set out to battle the enormously powerful railroad barons who subjected their employees to lives of poverty or near-poverty. Its major effort was a massive strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company, which manufactured and leased the sleeping cars used by most railroads.

The ARU called the walkout after Pullman refused to rescind drastic pay cuts it had unilaterally imposed on its workers, soon drawing support from more than a quarter-million other railroad employees. Their sympathy strikes shut down most of what was then the country's largest and most important industry.

For more than two weeks it was a standoff, but then employers persuaded the federal government to get a court injunction ordering strikers hack to work, on grounds that they had conspired to illegally restrain trade. When that was ignored, more than 14,000 heavily armed federal troops, marshals and policemen were called to duty in 27 states to get the trains moving again.

Thirty-four people were shot dead, dozens seriously wounded, and hundreds jailed for contempt -- Debs himself for six months. The strike and the American Railway Union were broken.

Yet the strike was not in the end a failure. The strikers' extraordinary efforts kept alive the idea of mass unionization, inspiring and providing important lessons far those who finally brought the idea to realization in the 1930s.

Debs spent much of his jail time reading radical literature that convinced him working people would never prevail unless they acted together in politics as well as on the job to combat a capitalist system "in which workingmen, however organized, can be shattered and splintered at a single stroke."

Their vehicle would be their own party -- a socialist party that Debs set out to organize with the same intense energy he had devoted to organizing the ARU.

The party's goal was "the collective ownership and control of industry and its democratic management in the interest of all the people .... The elimination of rent, interest, profit ... the end of class struggles and class rule, of master and slave ... of poverty and shame."

Relatively few people joined Debs' party. But he remained extremely popular among working people because of his unyielding defense of their rights, his obvious warmth and generosity, friendliness, courage, modesty and unquestionable integrity, sincerity and dedication.

Debs' great popularity, however, earned him a place high on the public enemies' list of the wealthy and privileged and their government allies. Eventually it led to a ten-year prison sentence imposed on him for speaking out against U.S. involvement in World War I. A class war, Debs called it, fought on behalf of the upper classes by working-class men.

In 1920, while in the third year of his sentence, Debs ran from behind bars the last and most successful of his presidential campaigns. He got nearly one million votes, the most for a socialist in U.S. history. The winner, Republican Warren G. Harding, acceded to heavy public pressure and pardoned Debs shortly afterward.

He died five years later at age 70, still arguing for what he fervently believed was needed to eradicate poverty and inequality.

The lifelong struggle of Gene Debs, his eloquent and persuasive arguments, had helped establish the eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek, helped create the Social Security system and job safety laws and regulations, helped workers win the right to pensions, unemployment benefits, compensation for on-the-job injuries and much, much more.

His was a record of aiding Americans that few people in or out of public office could come close to matching.

Copyright Dick Meister