American Railroad Union

The American Railway Union (ARU), was the largest labor union of its time, and one of the first industrial unions in the United States.

Organizational history


It was founded on June 20, 1893, by railway workers gathered in Chicago, Illinois, and under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs (locomotive fireman and later Socialist Presidential candidate), the ARU, unlike the craft unions, incorporated a policy of unionizing all railway workers, regardless of craft or service.[1]

Great Northern Railway strike

Beginning on August 1893, the Great Northern Railway enacted a series of wage cuts for its workers, reductions amounting to $146,500 per month.[2] The ARU organized all classes of employees of the road in a strike action lasting 18 days and forcing the company to arbitration of its unilateral wage cuts.

The arbitrators, consisting of businessmen from St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, found in favor of the Great Northern workers, thereby pressuring the company to roll back its wage cuts.[3] It was the ARU's first and only victory.

Pullman Palace Car Strike

Main article: Pullman Strike.

Buoyed by the success of the Great Northern strike, railway workers on other lines sought similar redress of their grievances through strike action. Eugene Debs and other union officials were concerned that other disruptions were inopportune, with the union needing a brief respite to better organize itself and to restore its finances.[4] This was not to be, however, as on May 11, 1894 the workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company launched a wildcat strike against their employer, sending notice to the ARU's office by telegram.[4]

The Pullman Company had begun a company town on the outskirts of Chicago called Pullman, Illinois, incorporated into the city of Chicago in 1889. The company and town were namesakes of its millionaire owner, George Pullman. The town of Pullman was his "utopia." He owned the land, homes and stores. Workers had to live in his homes and buy from his stores, thereby ensuring virtually all wages returned directly back into his pockets.

Although initially opposed to the strike, Debs responded to notice of the strike of the Pullman workers by traveling to Chicago to investigate the situation in person.[4]

Debs later recalled in sworn testimony that

"I found that the wages and expenses of the employees were so adjusted that every dollar the employees earned found its way back into the Pullman coffers; that they were not only not getting wages enough to live on, but that they were daily getting deeper into the debt of the Pullman company; that it was impossible for many of them to leave there at all... Wages had been reduced, but the expenses remained the same, and no matter how offensive the conditions were they were compelled to submit to them. After I heard those statements I satisfied myself that they were true and I made up my mind, as president of the American Railway Union, of which these employees were members, to do everything in my power that was within law and within justice to right the wrongs of those employees."[5]

An effort was made by the ARU to engage the Pullman Company and its workers in arbitration, but the officers of the company refused to submit to the proposal, instead claiming that they had nothing to arbitrate.[5] Railway workers had lost confidence in the existing network of craft-based railway brotherhoods — which were essentially fraternal benefit societies — to resist an industry-wide wage reduction campaign coordinated by the railway managers' association and looked to the fledgling ARU as a mechanism to stem the tide. Sympathy for the Pullman Company workers was widespread among other workers in the railroad industry.

The ARU's constitutionally-required biannual convention was forthcoming, already scheduled to begin in Chicago on June 9.[5] Delegates representing the 465 locals of the union — claiming a total membership of about 150,000 — assembled in the city to take up matters of concern to the organization.[5] During the course of the proceedings the situation of the Pullman workers came before the assembly, which appointed a committee of Pullman employees to study the situation.[6]

On June 21, 1894, two days prior to adjournment of the convention, the Pullman Committee reported that the company continued to refuse to arbitrate its unilateral wage cuts.[7] The committee recommended that an ultimatum be delivered that unless the Pullman Company began arbitration within 5 days, a boycott of railroad workers should be launched under which no member of the ARU would handle a train to which Pullman cars were attached.[7] After discussion this proposal was accepted by majority vote of the convention and a strike deadline was scheduled for June 26.[7]

The June 26 deadline came and still the Pullman Company refused to arbitrate its wage reductions. Railway employees began to refuse to handle trains pulling Pullman cars.[8] The ARU established temporary strike headquarters in Chicago to keep more closely abreast of the situation.[8] Chicago became a constant mass of meetings as workers of the various railway crafts gathered to discuss the strike situation.[8] The railway switchmen were the first to act, refusing to attach Pullman cars to trains.[9] When one switchman would be fired for insubordination, all the others in the shop would quit, in accord with a previously agreed upon plan.[9]

The railway managers took to the courts for relief, gaining a sweeping injunction against the ARU which was served upon union president Debs on July 2.[9] Terms of the injunction prohibited the union from sending out any telegram or letter or issuing any order which would have the effect of inducing or persuading railroad workers to withhold their service in pursuit of the strike action.[9]

The rationale for this legal action lay in the fact that the U.S. Mail was transported by rail — transport which was interrupted when trains including Pullman cars were stopped in their tracks. Under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, which ruled it illegal for any business combination to restrain trade or commerce, an injunction was issued on July 2 enjoining the ARU leadership from "compelling or inducing by threats, intimidation, persuasion, force or violence, railway employees to refuse or fail to perform their duties." The next day President Cleveland ordered 20,000 federal troops to crush the strike and run the railways.

Transition to a political party

By July 7, Debs and ten other ARU leaders were arrested and later tried and convicted for conspiracy to halt the free flow of mail. The strike was finally crushed while the board and president spent six months in prison in Woodstock, Illinois. Pullman reopened with all labor union leaders sacked.

During Debs' time in jail, he spent much of his time reading the literature works of Karl Marx and socialist texts brought to jail by Victor L. Berger.[10] After Debs got out of jail he merged the ARU with the Brotherhood of the Co-operative Commonwealth to form the Social Democracy of America. In 1900 Elliott ran for Congressman in Montana and Debs ran for President of the United States heading the Social Democratic Party ticket.[11] Elliott was later elected to the Montana Legislature while Debs ran unsuccessfully four more times for the US presidency as a socialist.

See also

Organized labour portal


External links

  • Proclamation to American Railway Union
  • "United States Strike Commission: The American Railway Union," Illinois state museum,
  • Gene Debs and the American Railway Union
  • A map from the Spatial History Project: The Rise in the American Railway Union, 1893-1894
  • History of Railroad Unions Web Site
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