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Digital History ID 3199

 

Eugene Debs

He led the drive for one big union embracing all rail workers. In his early twenties, he had become an official of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, a bastion of crafts separatism. He started out as a champion of compromise and arbitration as avenues to harmonious and equitable labor-management relations. But experience convinced him that the robber barons in command of major railroads were less interested in peace than in pitting one brotherhood against another. The collapse of a strike by rail switchmen in Buffalo in 1892 after the other crafts refused to come to their aid prompted Debs to resign his post with the firemen and become prime mover in setting up the American Railway Union, which cut across all craft lines and even took in longshoremen, car builders, and coal miners. The infant union had phenomenal growth, quickly eclipsing in size the combined membership of all the old-line brotherhoods. But its demise was equally swift.

Emma Goldman

She was synonymous with radicalism. Emma Goldman (1869-1940) was born in Russia and moved to the United States in 1886. She was soon caught up in a swirl of radical movements--feminism, birth control, pacifism, and anarchism. She defended free speech, free love, and the rights of striking workers and homosexuals.

At the height of the Red Scare in 1919, Emma Goldman was imprisoned on Ellis Island, put on a ship with 246 men and two other women who were branded radicals, and deported to the Soviet Union. The roundup was engineered by J. Edgar Hoover, then head of the Justice Department's Radical Division and later director of the FBI. She and 248 other suspected radicals were placed on a military transport with a detachment of armed marines and deported to revolutionary Russia.

Greeted by the wife of the famous writer Maxim Gorky, Emma Goldman said: "This is the greatest day in my life. I once found political freedom in America. Now the doors are closed to free thinkers, and the enemies of capitalism find once more sanctuary in Russia." But her enthusiasm for the new Soviet Union quickly faded. She lived there for less than two years. In a book describing her time in Russia, she argued that repression and terror were the inevitable result of Bolshevik ideology. In exile, she lived in France. During the Spanish Civil War, she worked with anarchists in defense of the Spanish Republic.

Mother Jones

Mary Harris "Mother" Jones was a legendary union organizer and strike leader. Born in Ireland in 1830, she migrated to the United States at the age of eight, and died in 1930. During her long life, she taught school, worked as a seamstress, survived a yellow fever epidemic that killed her husband and their four children, and watched her house and business burn in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. She was present at many of the most famous American strikes, exhorting workers in coal strikes in Colorado, Illinois, and West Virginia, steel strikes in Indiana and Pennsylvania, and cotton mill strikes in Alabama. She was present at the convention that founded the radical Industrial Workers of the World. She said, "If I pray I will have to wait until I am dead to get anything; but when I swear I get things here."

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