American Railway Union

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AMERICAN RAILWAY UNION. In June 1893, Eugene V. Debs, secretary-treasurer of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, joined other brotherhood officers to found the American Railway Union (ARU), dedicated to uniting all rail workers "into one, compact working force for legislative as well as industrial action" (Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs, p. 115).

Prior to the formation of the ARU, labor organizing in the railroad industry had primarily been limited to craft unions, each admitting only workers belonging to a specific trade. The most powerful of these were brotherhoods of engineers, firemen, brakemen, and conductors, which strived to win decent wages and working conditions by stressing their members' good conduct and valuable skills. As an industrial union with a keen readiness to strike, the ARU represented a sharp departure from this conservative model of labor organizing.

The ARU was barely a year old when, in April 1894, it led a walkout by employees of the Great Northern Railroad who were protesting wage cuts and dismissals of men who joined the new union. Strikers showed impressive unity and gained the sympathy of communities from Minnesota to Washington State. Eventually Debs maneuvered the railroad's owner, James J. Hill, into agreeing to an arbitration that gave the strikers almost all of their wage demands. After this unprecedented victory, the ARU soon counted 150,000 members, far more than the combined membership of the craft brotherhoods.

Almost immediately, the new union was drawn into a greater struggle. After employees of the Pullman sleeping car company held a strike to protest wage cuts and firings in May 1894, the ARU committed itself to a nationwide boycott of all trains that included Pullman cars. Debs did not think his young union was ready for such an ambitious battle, and events soon proved him right. Arrayed against the ARU were the well-organized forces of the General Managers Association, a coalition of twenty-four railroads, acting in close collaboration with Attorney General Richard Olney. In July 1894, a week after the boycott began, government attorneys persuaded federal judges to grant an injunction prohibiting virtually all ARU activities in support of the action, because it interfered with interstate commerce and the U.S. mail. ARU officers were arrested, and when Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor refused to call for a general strike to support the boycott, the ARU admitted defeat. Within a year, the union was defunct and Debs, convicted of contempt of court, was serving a short prison sentence.

The railroad brotherhoods soon patched themselves together and won a certain measure of success in bargaining with the railroad companies, which were eager to prevent a resurgence of the aggressive spirit represented by the ARU. Industrial unionism on the model of the ARU did not firmly establish itself in the United States until renewed labor militancy combined with new federal protections for organizing to spur the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1936.


Lindsey, Almont. The Pullman Strike: The Story of a Unique Experiment and of a Great Labor Upheaval. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942.

Salvatore, Nick. Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Stromquist, Shelton. A Generation of Boomers: The Pattern of Railroad Labor Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Eugene E.Leach

See alsoIn Re Debs ; Injunctions, Labor ; Labor Legislation and Administration ; Pullman Strike ; Railroad Brotherhoods ; andvol. 9:The Pullman Strike and Boycott, June 1894 .

American Railway Union (ARU)

views updated May 18 2018


Founded in June 1893 by labor organizer Eugene Debs (18551926), the American Railway Union (ARU) was an industrial union for all railroad workers. The union grew quickly and met with early success before its demise a few years later. Within a year of its founding, the ARU established 125 locals, and membership increased daily. In April 1894, ARU workers at the Great Northern Railroad voted to strike in response to wage cutting. The strike shut down the railroad for 18 days before the company agreed to restore wages. The union triumphed.

Later that same year workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company, which manufactured railcars in Pullman, Illinois (near Chicago), went on strike, protesting a significant reduction in their wages. In 1894, Pullman was a model "company town" where the company founder George W. Pullman (18311897) owned all the land and buildings and ran the school, bank, and utilities. In 1893, in order to maintain profits following declining revenues, the Pullman company cut workers' wages by 25 to 40 percent, but did not adjust rent and prices in the town, forcing many employees and their families into deprivation. In May 1894 a labor committee approached the Pullman company management to resolve the situation. The company, which had always refused to negotiate with employees, responded by firing committee members. The firings incited a strike of all 3,300 Pullman workers.

Pullman leaders were able to break the strike by attaching their cars to U.S. Mail trains. Since it was illegal to interfere with the delivery of the mail, Pullman workers now broke federal law when they obeyed their leader Eugene Debs and refused to return to work. President Grover Cleveland (18931897) ordered federal troops to insure the passage of the mail trains. Government intervention led to violent confrontations, and the strike was broken.

The American Railway Union was destroyed by the Pullman strike failure. Despite public protest, Eugene Debs was tried for contempt of court and conspiracy and was imprisoned for six months in 1895.

See also: Eugene Debs, Pullman Palace Car Company, Pullman Strike

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American Railway Union