In re Debs (1895) – Guest Essayist: Gary Porter
Obstruction of Commerce & the Mail
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night (nor Pullman Strike) stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” This (slightly altered) saying, an inscription found on the General Post Office in New York City, is widely regarded as the motto of the U.S. Postal Service. It is not, at least not officially, but you get the drift: nothing will be allowed to prevent delivery of the U.S. mail.
First, let’s get this out of the way: In jurisprudence,” in re:” is used to indicate that a certain proceeding may not have designated litigants or that the case is otherwise uncontested. You will often see the term used in case citations of probate and bankruptcy proceeding and sometimes in consolidated cases. The term essentially means “in the matter of”, “the petition of”, “the application of”, etc.
In the late 1800s, industrialist George Pullman wanted to make railroad cars as efficiently as possible. He built a model factory and a model community on the Southside of Chicago to house his workers. The workers rented the homes from the Pullman Palace Car Company (PPCC); ownership was not permitted.
Even though the intent was a modern, model community, the company essentially owned the town and ran things the way it saw fit, to include setting utility rates and rents. In response to a severe depression (the Panic of 1893) the Company began laying off workers and lowered wages 25% for those who remained; but it did not reduce their rents, leaving the unemployed and even those who remained at work, scrambling for survival. The company refused to enter arbitration; the workers called for a strike.
Enter Eugene V. Debs, founder of the American Railway Union (ARU), whose members were largely unskilled workers. Workers at PPCC were not initially unionized so Debs brought in ARU organizers and signed up many of the disgruntled. A local strike at the factory was largely ineffective, so Debs took the effort national; at its peak the strike involved upwards of 250,000 workers in 27 states (29 railroads). Striking workers refused to handle trains carrying Pullman cars; unfortunately for the strikers, some of these trains also carried U.S. mail.
Even though other railway unions of skilled workers such as engineers, firemen and conductors, did not support the strike, it nevertheless severely disrupted the nation’s interstate commerce. Debs was pilloried in much of the press; the New York Times called the strike “a struggle between the greatest and most important labor organization and the entire railroad capital.”
Illinois Gov. John P. Altgeld sent in the Illinois militia to quell rioting. A federal injunction ordering the strikers back to work was ignored and President Grover Cleveland called in 2,500 federal troops to stop the increasing violence. On July 7, 1894, the day of greatest looting and violence, Illinois National Guardsmen fired into the mob. Over the course of the strike, 30 strikers were killed and 57 were wounded. Property damage exceeded $80 million.
Debs was directed by a federal judge to stop the obstruction of railways (and thus interstate commerce) and to end the strike; when he refused, he was arrested on federal charges, including conspiracy to obstruct the mail.
In 1894, in an effort to mend fences with organized labor, President Grover Cleveland and Congress designated Labor Day as a federal holiday. Cleveland signed legislation into law six days after the end of the strike.
Although ably defended by none other than the famous Clarence Darrow, on December 14, 1894, U.S. circuit court judge William A. Woods ruled that Debs and the others were in contempt of court for violating the original injunction. The defendants were sentenced to six months in prison.
Upon appeal, the question for the Supreme Court was whether the federal government had general authority to use force to prevent obstructions to interstate railroads and whether the courts could support such efforts through the expedience of injunctions rather than through the more formal processes of a criminal prosecution.
On May 27, 1895, the Supreme Court upheld the government’s use of the injunction against the strike. Justice Brewer delivered the unanimously (9–0) decision.
“It must be borne in mind that this [injunction] was not simply to enjoin a mob and mob violence. It was not a bill to command a keeping of the peace; much less was its purport to restrain the defendants from abandoning whatever employment they were engaged in. The right of any laborer, or any number of laborers, to quit work was not challenged. The scope and purpose of the bill was only to restrain forcible obstructions of the highways along which interstate commerce travels and the mails are carried.”
There are two other statements from the syllabus of the case I find of interest: “The government of the United States has jurisdiction over every foot of soil within its territory, and acts directly upon each citizen…. In the exercise of [the commerce clause and postal service] powers, the United States may remove everything put upon highways, natural or artificial, to obstruct the passage of interstate commerce, or the carrying of the mails.” One wonders whether this includes protesters who have shut down an interstate highway. Hmmm.
Following his release from jail in 1895, Debs became a committed advocate of socialism and in 1897, helped launch the Social Democracy of America, a forerunner of the Socialist Party of America. Debs ran for president in 1900 for the first of five times as head of the Socialist Party ticket.
In re Debs, 158 U.S. 564 (1895):
Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people. CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes a weekly essay: Constitutional Corner which is published on multiple websites, and hosts a weekly radio show: “We the People, the Constitution Matters” on WFYL AM1140. Gary has also begun performing reenactments of James Madison and speaking with public and private school students about Madison’s role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and Constitution. Gary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook or Twitter (@constitutionled).