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In Re Debs


In one of the most egregious cases of the courts siding with industry against labor, a federal judge issued an injunction ordering the American Railway Union to stop a strike against the Pullman Company and sentenced the strike's leader, Eugene Debs, to six months in jail for violating the injunction. The government then put Debs on trial for conspiracy but dropped the case in mid-trial. The Supreme Court upheld Debs's sentence for contempt of court in a major confirmation of federal judges' power to enforce their orders.

In the late nineteenth century, as heavy industry grew and railroads spread across the country, commercial centers like Chicago and other cities mushroomed. With this industrial growth, however, came growing abuses. Ownership of industry was concentrated in a handful of wealthy men, while the factory workers and others who made industrialization possible were not protected by the government. Companies were able to get away with paying workers low wages for long hours. Furthermore, most companies did not give workers benefits such as sick leave or disability pay. To make matters worse, there were many "company towns" where workers rented their houses and bought food from stores--all owned by the very company that employed them.

The city of Chicago, where the famous Haymarket Riot occurred, was home to one of the most flagrant abusers of industrial power. George M. Pullman's Pullman Palace Car Company manufactured world-famous railroad cars. The company operated its own company town just outside of Chicago. Not surprisingly, it was named Pullman, Illinois.

The company charged workers higher than average rent to live in company-owned housing while paying substandard hourly wages. Furthermore, in 1893 the company responded to an economic depression by cutting wages 25 percent. In the winter of 1893, conditions were grim in Pullman, Illinois.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917In Re Debs - Significance, The "debs Rebellion", Debs Tried For Conspiracy, Debs' Political Career Continued