Special to the Union Craftsman (February, 2000)

Learn About Eugene Debs

By Gene G Freeland, Financial Secretary-Treasurer of Dallas AFL-CIO Council

Eugene Victor Debs, probably in the 1920s Eugene Victor Debs was a union man. He was born in 1855 and was one of ten children. His father had come to America from Colmar, Alsace in 1849, and opened a grocery store in Terre Haute, Indiana. He was not much of a moneymaker, but he gave his children a chance to finish public school, and that was about all he could do.

At fifteen, Gene Debs was already working as a machinist on the Indianapolis and Terre Haute Railway. He worked as a locomotive fireman, clerked in a store, joined the local of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, was elected secretary, and traveled all over the country as an organizer.

He was described as a "tall shamblefooted man," who had a sort of gusty rhetoric that set on fire the railroad workers in their pineboarded halls. He made them want the world he wanted, a world brothers might own where everybody would split even; he wanted his brothers to be free.

He said, "I am not a labor leader. I don't want you to follow me or anyone else. If you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of the capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into this Promised Land if I could, because if I could lead you in, someone else would lead you out." That was how he talked to freight handlers and gandy dancers, to firemen and switchmen and engineers, telling them it wasn't enough to organize the railroad men, that all workers must be organized, that all workers must be organized in the workers' cooperative commonwealth.

That was what he saw in the crowd of over 100,000 that met him in November of 1895 at the Chicago Armory when he got out of jail after the Pullman strike. He had served a six month sentence when he was convicted of contempt of court because he refused to obey the injunction ordering him to call off the strike. Those where the men who worked for him in the five U.S. presidential campaigns he ran as the Socialist Party nominee. He knew he wouldn't win; yet he received over 900,000 votes in 1912 and in 1920 when he was in prison.

But where were Gene Debs' brothers in 1918 when Woodrow Wilson had him locked up in Atlanta for speaking against war? Where were the locomotive firemen and engineers when they hustled him off to Atlanta Penitentiary?

They brought him back to die in Terre Haute, to sit on his rocker with a cigar in his mouth, beside him American Beauty roses his wife fixed in a bowl; and the people of Terre Haute and the people of Indiana and the people of the Middle West were fond of him and afraid of him and thought of him as a kindly uncle who loved them, but they were afraid of him as if he had contracted a social disease, syphilis or leprosy, and thought it was too bad, but on account of the flag and prosperity and making the world safe for democracy, they were afraid to be with him, or to think much about him for fear they might believe him.

Gene Debs died October 20, 1926. The President of the Terre Haute Central Labor Council told Debs' brother, "You'll have to give him to us for a while, you know he belongs to us." For two days the body lay in state at the Labor Temple. Delegations arrived from New York, from Chicago, from Pittsburgh and Omaha, from countless villages once visited by Eugene Debs. The audience at his funeral included famous writers, wealthy attorneys and businessmen, ordinary men with the grease of a lifetime ground into their thumbs. They believed him when he had told them:

"While there is a lower class, I am in it,

While there is a criminal element, I am of it,

While there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

Click here for more on Debs


Oil Changed Labor History in Region

Oil was discovered in Texas in 1901, about the same time that automobiles were beginning to dominate American life and industry. Ordinary farm boys found that they could make considerably more money, even though the work was uncertain and unsafe, working as “roughnecks” or “roustabouts” in the oil industry. The nature of the work dictated the working conditions.

A few college-trained geologists and experts in the use of seismic tools made educated guesses as to where oil might be found, but most wells were drilled as close as possible to other successful wells. Most white farmers and almost all Native Americans sold their mineral rights separately from their “surface rights.” Speculation in oil leases became a very active and lucrative occupation.

Cable drilling was used for shallow wells. A small derrick raised and dropped a heavy tool into the rock below until a hole was formed to get to the oil or gas. Rotary drilling was used for deeper wells. A rotating table, at floor level, turned a square “kelly” pipe, which then turned all the pipe below. At the end of the pipe was a 3-or 4-coned drilling bit of very hard steel or even with commercial diamonds. During drilling, a mud solution was pumped through the pipe under heavy pressure to cool the bit and to remove rock cuttings by circulating them back to the surface on the outside of the pipe.

When the rock samples indicated that oil-bearing areas were reached, the rotary crew replaced their drill pipe with a wider pipe that lined the hole. Specialists then perforated the pipe at the proper level and used chemicals to break down the oil bearing rock and start a flow. In a few highly dramatic cases, water pressure or gas pressure at the bottom of the hole actually forced the oil to “gusher” and endanger everybody in the area. Just putting out oil-field fires became a separate industry.

Cable crews used a driller and two crewmen who used hand-tools to add or subtract pipe as the hole was deepened below. Generally, there was a driller (foreman) and 3-4 workman on the floor of a rotary drilling crew. Drill pipe was 3 ½ inches in diameter and 30-35 feet long (it stretched with use). By adding lengths of pipe, the crew might typically extend the hole more than a mile below the surface. For a photo of a rig floor and crew, click here

As drilling bits wore out, or if there was trouble in the ordinary process of drilling, the crew had to remove all of the pipe a few sections at a time. Then they had to replace the bit or fix the problem and replace all of the pipe. This was called a trip. All of the crews worked in three shifts or tours (pronounced “towers”) seven days a week. After the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in the mid-1930s, oil field workers got time-and-a-half for their work over 40 hours in a given week. The long drives to and from the rig added to their long and hazardous hours, and accidents were common. Most drilling companies were small and tended to be quite evasive about paying off insurance claims. The largest drilling companies were unionized, but most work was done without any protection for the workers.

Oil field workers developed reputations as nomadic, carefree, and rowdy men. In Texas, there were virtually no African-Americans hired in the drilling industry before the civil rights movement.


Houston Streetcar Conductors Fought

1904: The streetcar company in Houston, the Streetcar Houston Electric Company, was owned by a Boston company. The company was determined to break the union. It did so by firing union members. The firings and subsequent arbitration decided in favor of the company caused the workers to vote a strike. At first the community supported the workers, but as the inconvenience and violence increased, public opinion turned against the strikers. Most of the violence was bombing tracks. After a few months the strikers had to give up.

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Native American Resistance Died with Chitto Harjo

Chitto Harjo, 1846-1911,.was also known as Crazy Snake, Wilson Jones, and Bill Jones. He was born among the Creeks who had been driven out of Alabama and into Indian Territory. Throughout his life, he stood tall among the full-blood Native Americans who resisted the incursions of European Americans. Unfortunately, purebloods constituted a minority and were not leading the nation at the time that the Confederates asked the Five Civilized Tribes to support them in the Civil War. Chitto Harjo was among those who fought their way to Kansas in an attempt to maintain their treaties with the United States.

After 1897, the Dawes Commission mandated that the tribes could no longer maintain their tribal property in common, but had to receive "allotments." In other words, their tribal lands were to be divided, by white men, among them. History shows that they actually lost their lands almost completely within that one generation. The purebred Creeks resisted, and Chitto Harjo, a most eloquent spokesperson, became their leader.

He spent two years in Leavenworth prison without being charged of any violent crimes. Basically, he just spoke too much and too well.

In 1906, Harjo gave an eloquent plea to a Senate Investigating Committee in Tulsa. To some, it is seen as the last explanation and the last plea of the Native American peoples. A short history and Harjo's statement can be read at http://www.rootsweb.com/~okmcinto/Pics/harjo_chitto.htm.

The official histories absolve white settlers as "misunderstanding the situation" with the purebred Creeks. Whether they misunderstood or acted out of plain malice or premeditated racism, they attacked the natives one way or another until, eventually, deputies massacred a number of them at Harjo's home. Harjo escaped and became the subject of legends as white settlers imagined "Indian uprisings" led by "Crazy Snake" and his "Snake" band. Years later, a Choctaw friend of Harjo said that the last great nationalist leader of the Creeks had died at his home in the Wichita Mountains, and was buried in the yard, Apri l5, 1911.

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Timber Workers Fought

1911-1912: The Brotherhood of Timber Workers was a Brotherhood of East Texas southern-based unionists very active in timber western Louisiana and eastern Texas. They organized workers against the abuses of the company-town system in which lumber barons such as John Henry Kirby exercised almost complete control over the lives of the workers. One of the weapons of the Brotherhood was the strike. The company arranged for union leaders to be tried on trumped-up murder charges. The union leaders were acquitted, but the legal expenses ruined the union.

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Texas Union Town Responded to Ludlow Massacre

Mineworkers in Thurber, Texas, the state's first and only all-union city, organized a company of militia to go to Colorado to fight against the Rockefeller interests and their corporate allies after the Ludlow Massacre of April 20, 1914. At that time, military and hired-gun forces opened up on a miners' tent colony with machine guns. They also poured gasoline on the tents and set them afire. Women and children were either machine-gunned as they fled or burned alive. I understand that there is a complete account at www.du.edu/~markwalk/fieldschool.html

For an account of Ludlow, look for Zeese Papanikolas, Buried Unsung in our reading list.readlist.htm - Zeese


Visit Thurber

About 75 miles West of Fort Worth, on the road to Abilene, sits the ghost town of Thurber, Texas. The ghosts there were union people. Thurber claims to have been, from 1903 to 1922, the first "union town" in Texas. Every worker there was union!

On October 8, 1903, the Texas and Pacific Coal Company, which owned the town and every industry in it, signed a contract with the United Mine Workers of America. Other unions signed up the brick plant workers and everybody else. Before that, Thurber was a strictly "company town" with only company stores allowed and a high fence surrounding it to keep out union organizers.

To organize Thurber, men and women had to fight off the companies and the Texas Rangers. They had to organize immigrants from all over the world who spoke dozens of different languages. The miners were such committed unionists that, around 1912, they organized a militia of 500 fighting men to go to Colorado to fight in the mine wars against the Rockefeller companies.

When the company decided that the demand for coal had fallen so far that they had to break their union contract and cut wages, the miners shut down the operation for the last time in 1921. Within a few years, the entire city of 10,000 had disappeared.

Today on Highway 20, one can see three battered brick buildings and a tall smokestack. There are two good restaurants, both are filled with pictures, antiques, and other memorabilia of Thurber's union days. Look for the union letters "B, T & T" on the bricks at the entranceway of the old building.

The Cemetery on "Graveyard Hill" has markers for many of the 20-odd different ethnic groups that worked the mines and ran the unions in Thurber. Some of the tombstones are engraved with two hands clasping in solidarity over the names of the dead.

Two hands are the symbol of the American Federation of Labor!

--Gene Lantz (around 1990)

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Brownsville Affair Shames All

By August 13, 1906, it was clear that local people in Brownsville, Texas, deeply resented the Black “Buffalo” Soldiers stationed in the town. Another Mexican border town had previously gotten rid of African-American soldiers by framing them up on shooting charges. They used spent shells gathered from the firing range.

That night, somebody shot out several windows, wounded the sheriff, and killed a bartender when he came outside. Soldiers claimed that the shooting started outside their own barracks and that they did nothing until their officers mustered and counted them, as disciplined soldiers would do. These were veterans with good records.

But the townspeople claimed the soldiers had shot up the town, and presented spent cartridge shells of the type the army used to prove it. Despite evidence that the shells had been planted as part of a frame-up, investigators accepted the statements of the mayor and the white citizens.

President Roosevelt, who had previously enjoyed great African-American support, ordered all 167 Black infantrymen dishonorably discharged because of their “conspiracy of silence.” Their careers were destroyed.  A nationwide civil rights explosion resulted. Both the NAACP and the Urban League were formed during the period. W.E.B. DuBois supported Wilson against the Republicans and began the shift of African Americans into the Democratic Party, despite their history of support for slavery. The events, and the long repercussions, may have also caused Black soldiers to be more aggressive in later incidents of racial repression in Texas.

The Brownsville Affair has ever since been a matter of controversy, and with the rise of the civil rights movement it became a matter of embarrassment to the army. After the publication in 1970 of John D. Weaver's The Brownsville Raid, which argued that the discharged soldiers had been innocent, the army conducted a new investigation and, in 1972, reversed the order of 1906. One of the victims was still alive to thank them. Thanks to Gary Kennedy for loaning the video tape: “History’s Mysteries: Discharged without Honor—‘The Brownsville Raid’” from the History Channel. He put me onto other information at the Handbook of Texas Pages: http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/index.html. And http://library.tamu.edu/cushing.


African-Texans Have Proud History

NAACP Chairman Julian Bond gave a speech, “Freedom Under Fire,” in Houston on 7 July, 2002. He gave a number of important facts about the struggles for civil rights in Texas.  He mentioned important legal precedents such as and Sweatt v. Painter, that advanced civil rights, and a more recent one from the Bush era, Hopwood v. Texas, that goes in the reactionary direction. He said that Texas has the second highest number of both blacks and Hispanics of any state in the country. It also executed more of them than any other death penalty state.

Bond said, “Texas and Houston both have a rich NAACP history. Houston has long had a pool of well-educated black professionals and entrepreneurs and a vibrant black community which exercised independence and strength. One hundred years ago, black Houston boasted 9 lawyers, 4 dentists, 16 doctors, 10 real estate agents, 5 newspapers, 30 restaurants and 40 stores. The Houston NAACP Branch is 90-years strong this year. As one historian writes, "If black Houstonians and Texans were anything, they were organized!"  And they were quick to act when their rights were restricted or threatened, when freedom was under fire.

            In January 1921, when the City Democratic Executive Committee adopted a resolution excluding black voters from the upcoming primary, the black

leadership of Houston promptly sued. It would take four United States Supreme Court cases and 23 years, but in the end they would emerge victorious. They would win because of what was described as "the only organized body financially equipped and possessing the legal expertise to launch a sustained attack on the white primary" - the NAACP. “

            In 1944, Houston activists launched Smith v. Allwright in the Supreme Court. The 1948 ruling finished off the White Primary in America. In 1945, Heman Marion Sweatt attempted to enroll at the law school of the University of Texas in Austin When the Supreme Court decided Sweatt v. Painter in 1950, it ended segregation in the nation's law schools. But in 1996, a Bush-era right-wing initiative set back affirmative action in colleges in the case of Hopwood v. Texas. Bond said, it “… slammed shut the doors the NAACP had opened.”


Texas Socialists Won 11.7% of Governor’s Vote

In the 1914 Texas Governor’s Race, E.R. Meitzen , the Socialist candidate from Hallettsville, piled up 11.7% of the vote and made his party the second largest in the state. Jim Ferguson, the Democrat who eventually won, co-opted a large part of the tenant farmer vote that might otherwise have gone with the Socialists.

I’m putting more description of the remarkable Meitzen family and their profound effect on progressive politics in the Socialism section of this site.

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