Debs, In Re 158 U.S. 564 (1895)

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DEBS, IN RE 158 U.S. 564 (1895)

Eugene V. Debs, head of the American Railway Union, petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus on the ground that he had been imprisoned illegally, for contempt of court, because of his defiance of an injunction issued by a United States circuit court. That draconian injunction, which became a model for subsequent injunctions in American labor disputes, sought to end the strike by Debs's union against railroads hauling Pullman sleeping cars. The Pullman Company and the managers association of twenty-four railroad corporations, according to a later federal investigation, sought to crush the strike and the union rather than accept any peaceable solution. The managers jubilantly described the injunction as a "gatling gun on paper." It prohibited the strikers from attempting to obstruct the movement of mail or interstate commerce by the struck railroads. It also forbade the use of "persuasion" aimed at preventing workers from doing their jobs.

Justice david j. brewer, speaking for a unanimous Supreme Court, delivered a breathtakingly broad opinion based not on any statutory authority for the injunction, but on general principles of national supremacy. "The strong arm of the national government," he declared, "may be put forth to brush away all obstructions to the freedom of interstate commerce or the transportation of the mails. If the emergency arises, the army of the Nation, and all its militia, are at the service of the Nation to compel obedience to its laws." Similarly, Brewer added, the United States might invoke the power of its courts to remove obstructions by injunctions. Brewer's opinion transcended the particular injunction in this case; he failed to examine its terms, though it outlawed persuasion as well as force and assumed that the refusal to work for a railroad is an obstruction of commerce and the mails.

National supremacy, which the Court rendered nearly impotent to cope with obstructions to commerce caused by giant corporations, triumphed against the militant union. The union never recuperated from its defeat in this case and soon disintegrated. Debs taught that injunctions could be effective union-smashing devices. They became common afterward. The case also foreshadowed the use of the sherman antitrust act against unions. The circuit court had issued the injunction mainly on the ground that the strike was a combination in restraint of interstate commerce. The Supreme Court said that it did not dissent from that conclusion but preferred to rest its judgment on "broader ground."

Leonard W. Levy


Lindsey, Almont 1942 The Pullman Strike. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.