March 10, 2016
By Bill Hohlfeld
New York, NY – It has long been the custom for the ranks of labor, especially in New York, as well it should be, to commemorate the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of March 25th,1911. That is when 146 workers, predominantly female and immigrant, died a horrible and senseless death, due to the complete lack of regard for worker health and safety on the part of the factory owners. But there is another significant March milestone in American labor’s struggle that is particularly timely in this year’s political climate.
On March 10th, 1919, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the espionage conviction of labor leader and socialist Eugene V. Debs. Debs had been jailed for daring to speak out against World War I. Despite that fact, he launched his fifth campaign for the U. S. Presidency in 1920. The American people cast a total of 915,000 popular votes for him as he campaigned as prisoner 9653 from a Federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia.
Debs did not appear out of thin air. He had long been an advocate for working people. As early as 1875, the native born Debs (he hailed from Terre Haute, Indiana) organized his local lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. He was also a founder of one of the nation’s first industrial unions, the American Railway Union, to which he was elected president in 1893. Finally, he helped launch one of America’s most radical labor organizations, the Industrial Workers of the World – commonly known as the Wobblies.
His incarceration by the Federal government, due to his conviction under the terms of the 1917 Espionage act, was not his first either. He had once before been sentenced to six months in jail (May–November 1895) for his role in leading the Chicago Pullman Palace Car Company strike. If the truth be told, he had been set up to break the law when Pullman shrewdly placed mail on passenger trains so that striking railroad workers could be found guilty of tampering with the U.S. mail. It was an early attempt to silence Debs, as he had already demonstrated his influence by emerging victoriously from the Great Northern Railway strike of 1894, where he gained significantly higher wages for his membership.
Debs was ultimately released from prison by presidential order in 1921 by Warren G. Harding, but not before he had been stripped of his U.S. citizenship, the result of being convicted of sedition in 1918. Overseas, Debs was honored for the same “crime” for which he had been imprisoned at home. In 1924, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the Finnish Socialist Karl H. Wiik on the grounds that "Debs started to work actively for peace during World War I, mainly because he considered the war to be in the interest of capitalism.” Eugene V. Debs died in October 1926, a man much weakened by his prison stint.
Today, we again have a presidential candidate who refuses to shy away from the word “socialist.” He too, is at odds with a recent Supreme Court ruling. In his case, he has been a strident critic of Citizens United. He too, is on record for having vigorously opposed our
involvement in our most recent military action in Iraq. If we look closely at Debs’ positions throughout his public life, we can draw many parallels between him and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. A century later, the most striking difference, much to our great Republic’s
credit, is Senator Sanders need not be afraid to speak openly of his views, and need not run his campaign from prison.