The American Railway Union

In June of 1893, at the beginning of yet another depression, fifty railroad workers met in Chicago to form the American Railway Union. Before that, the only trade unions on the railroads had been the various brotherhoods, a separate one for each of the main occupations in railroading. The Brotherhoods of skilled workers, such as the Engineers, were the strongest and best organized. They were condescending towards their fellow workers in the less skilled crafts - the switchmen, the brakemen, the locomotive firemen - and they hardly recognized the existence of the men who worked on the railroad but had nothing to do with the actual operation of the trains.

The utter lack of cooperation was the source of many internal conflicts among the various brotherhoods. It was impossible for the unskilled crafts to bargain effectively with the railroads, and the Engineers achieved many of their gains by sacrificing the interests of other crafts. Beginning around 1885, a movement developed in each of the Brotherhoods that aimed at joining forces. Finally in 1889 the Supreme Council of the United Orders of Railway Employees was formed, consisting of the officers of several Brotherhoods. For a time, the organization seemed to function well. It appeared that the other Brotherhoods would join and eventually all merge into one big Brotherhood of railroad workers - one industrial union rather than many craft unions. But within less than two years, one of the member Brotherhoods conspired with the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad to destroy another of the member Brotherhoods. The Supreme Council collapsed.

This affair led some of the more radical officials in the Brotherhoods to take a good look at their conservative fellows, who seemed more interested in their personal financial gains than in a unification of the different organizations. One of these radicals was Eugene Victor Debs, secretary-treasurer of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen since 1880 and editor of its magazine. Debs had helped the order out of debt, had helped in drawing twenty thousand members and solidly established the order. Debs was personally responsible for most of this progress.

In 1892 he was fed up with the internal warfare of the Brotherhoods. He wanted to see an organization that would really protect the railroaders against the tyranny and exploitation of the corporations. In the following spring he was one of the founders of the American Railway Union and became its president. The ARU started its first local lodge on August 17, 1893. Within twenty days, thirty-four lodges had been chartered. Members were joining at the rate of two hundred to four hundred men a day. Entire lodges of Railway Carmen and Switchmen changed their affiliation to the ARU. But most of the applicants were previously unorganized men in the less skilled crafts who had been excluded from the Brotherhoods. By mid-November the ARU had eighty-seven local lodges and the growth continued over the winter. In the spring of 1894, it won the first strike that any union had ever won against a major railroad.

The Great Northern Railroad of James J. Hill stretched westward from Minneapolis all the way to the Pacific. Debs and his fellows quickly took over when the great Northern employees went on strike in April. After the entire line had been closed down for almost two weeks, the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce demanded that Hill and the union settle the dispute. The strikers received 97.5% of their demands, a total wage increase of $ 1,752,000 a year.