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Eugene V. Debs

Eugene V. Debs (1855-1922) was an American labor leader, founder of the International Workers of the World (IWW) and five-time candidate for President of the United States on the socialist ticket. Debs was born in Indiana and left school at an early age to work on the railroads. In 1875 he joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman and began his career in labor unions.

Eugene V. Debs

At the time, railroad unions were conservative organizations that did not work towards collective bargaining. Debs changed that, and organized the American Railway Union in 1893, the first large-scale union for non-skilled railway workers. Debs was instrumental in organizing the Pullman IWW of 1894, for which he was jailed. It was this incarceration that turned Debs into a committed socialist. In 1905, Debs helped to co-found the IWW, also known as the Wobblies, along with Big Bill Haywood and Daniel De Leon. However, the Socialist Party soon split from the IWW.

Debs was an outspoken opponent of America’s involvement in World War I, with President Wilson calling him a traitor the country. In June 1918, he was arrested and charged with 10 counts of sedition. He was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and lifetime disenfranchisement. Debs appealed to the US Supreme Court, but lost. President Harding reduced the sentence to time served in 1921, releasing the ailing Debs.

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