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Eugene Debs in History of Labor Unions

Eugene Debs (1855-1926) was the president of the American Railway Union and a founding member of the Social Democratic Party of America. Born in Indiana, he dropped out of high school and went to work for the Terre Haute & Indianapolis Railroad at the age of fourteen. He soon became active in the local Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. In 1893, he helped organize the American Railway Union and became its first president.

During the Pullman strike of 1894, Debs instructed members of the ARU to support Pullman employees by refusing to handle Pullman cars, which were a vital part of the nation's passenger rail system. Debs defied a court order demanding that union leaders cease in their encouragement of the strike and was subsequently sentenced to six months in jail. Shortly thereafter he embraced socialism, helped found the Social Democratic Party of America, and ran for president five times as a socialist candidate.

During World War I, Debs publicly opposed American intervention in the war and consequently was convicted under the 1918 Espionage Act, which imposed sweeping restrictions on speech and actions deemed detrimental to the war effort. Imprisoned in the Atlanta federal penitentiary, Debs ran for president from his jail cell and received more than 900,000 votes in 1920.

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