Wheeling Labor Conference

Wheeling Register
July 27, 1897

The Debs Meeting Was A Monster.

He Addressed Three Thousand People, Last Night.

Many Business Men and Prominent Citizens in His Audience.

There Was Much Applause Throughout the Address, and the Tenor of His Remarks Was Very Generally Approved and Endorsed, Although Once or Twice There Was a Feeling That He Was Too Severe in His Criticisms. Wage Earners and Labor Organizations Well Represented - The Mayer on the Platform - Preliminary Address by J. W. Rea. M. F. Tighe Presided.

Last evenings' mass meeting at Chapline and Seventeenth streets, addressed by J. W. Rea, of the Painters' and Decorators' Union, and Eugene V. Debs, was a monster. Not less than three thousand people were present and of these more than one-half-perhaps two thousand - remained until the meeting adjourned at half-past ten o'clock. It was a thoroughly representative audience, although the wage earning element predominated largely, as a matter of course. The addresses - particularly that of Mr. Debs - were liberally punctuated with applause, and after the meeting adjourned there was a very general concurrence by all classes in the sentiments voiced. Once or twice, in the estimation of some of his hearers, Mr. Debs was a little too severe in his strictures; but on the whole the spirit and text of his speech was commended, and in many instances this commendation was enthusiastic, and all that any speaker could desire.

The meeting was late in starting. Many people began to gather about the stand as early as a quarter past seven, and by half-past several hundred were present. At a quarter to eight they had increased to nearly a thousand, and after that they came thick and fast. Mr. Debs, under the escort of the local committee, and accompanied by Mr. J. W. Rea, did not appear until about twelve minutes past eight. He was cordially welcomed by the multitude awaiting him.

M. F. Tighe, Esq., presided at the meeting and introduced as the first speaker Mr. Rae. - That gentleman spoke for about half an hour, making a very able address. On the stand with the speakers were Mayer J. R. Butts, and the local committee, consisting of Messrs. President Simms and Vice President Bauer, of the Trades Assembly; ex-President Tighe, W. H. H. Riley, Councilman Hahne, and a number of others. In his preliminary address Mr. Tighe presented Mr. Rea as the first speaker, on behalf of the Trades Assembly of the Ohio Valley, and expressed, in their behalf, the satisfaction he and his co-workers in the field of labor felt at the presence of such a large audience.

Mr. Rea began by saying: - "Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen - Fellow Workmen of Wheeling - It is a very great pleasure for me to be here tonight, because I assure you that my friend Debs and myself want to meet the people of Wheeling, that they may see that we have no horns upon our heads, as the press has sometimes represented. (Applause.) But we have beer, out among people who ought to have horns and know how to use them upon the coal operators of West Virginia. (Applause.) I have been a resident of the city of Chicago for twenty years past, and have been working in the cause of labor, and yet have never yet injured a fly, to my knowledge. (Applause.) I have never advocated any other method of settling labor troubles, except upon a business basis, as between man an man. (Applause.) When people say that we believe in strikes, I want to say that we are misquoted, and I want to say this to the people of Wheeling who are not in the ranks of labor."

The speaker described the Chicago Building Trades Council, to which he belonged, and its methods of work, and then said:

"When you are on the floor of your labor union, and the time comes to elect officers, cast your vote for a conservative, hard-headed, thinking man, even if you do not like a hair of his head, and never would vote for him on personal grounds for any office. Elect such a man to office in your union, and he will carry you through. In the Building Trades Council of Chicago, which has a membership of 75,000, we believe not had a strike in twenty years." **** "I want to say tonight, if you are looking for that which has lately gotten lost somewhere great prosperity (laughter), you must demand that labor obtain enough wages to live on, and when labor is earning living wages, prosperity will come to this State. (Applause.) The laboring man is the man who spends his money. If he is earning one dollar or five dolars [sic] a day, he spends it in the town in which he earns it; but the operators, who belong to a trust, made possible by our laws, plugs holes in that law and crawls through, and then goes to Europe to spend the money which belongs to this country. And then he tries to marry his daughter to somebody with a title. ("That's the stuff.") They remind me of the man who had several marriageble [sic] daughters, and who was talking to an eligible young man about them. He said: "There is Mary, she is 25 years old, and when she is married I will give her $5,000. And there is Jennie she is 30 years old, and when she is married I will give her $10,000. And there is Sallie, she is 35, and when she is married I will give her $15,000." And the young man stroked the chin a while and looked thoughtful and then he said: "[?] anything about 50 years old, have you? Any old thing will do me." (Laughter and cheers.) That is the way with the American millionaire. Any old thing in the way of a duke or a count will do for his daughters, just so they get the title, but there is nothing good enough for them in America. (Applause.)

"The time has come - it is open to you now - in the State of West Virginia, and we are her to plead with you on behalf of your fellow workmen. It cuts no figure with me what the coal miners get. My trade is a local one. You can't paint a house here in Wheeling and take it to Chicago, but you can take a ton of coal there, and if you allow that you might as well send your miners there, and in return for that, the organized labor of this country will wipe yo0u off the face of the earth. (Cries of "Good!", "Good!" "Good!")

"Yesterday a man in Clarksburg said to me: "But how are you going to do that?" I said to him: "The people of this nineteenth century will do it,"and this meeting here in Wheeling is one of the ways we have of gaining our point. (Applause.) It is one of the things we have up our sleeve. (Applause.) The other day, in Pittsburgh, I received a cypher dispatch and an editor came to me and asked me to let him have the text of it. I said no, that I did not propose to put a gun in a man's hand, and tell him that at a certain time I would be at the corner of Clark street, and that he could then and there put a bullet in me. (Applause.) But I added that after a while, when the time came, that dispatch would be at his service, and even though he might not then want it, he would be welcome to it. (Laughter.) That is what we are here in conference tomorrow for - to come to an understanding as to what we are to do for the miners of West Virginia, and of Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and Illinois, and Indiana, and of Alabama, and clear out to Colorado, and if you will help us, just as sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, you of West Virginia will be benefitted as well as the miners of Pennsylvania or of Illinois. (Applause.) We can fix such corporations as the Baltimore and Ohio road. We care nothing for Arthur and such men as he. (Cries of: "We are with you!")

"Mr. Debs has only one object in this State. He is not a member of any union connected with it, but he has an honest sympathy with the men who are in it, and so he told Mr. Ratchford that if his services were of any value they were at his disposal. (Applause.) That is my position. When the miners of Spring Valley, Ills., appealed to our union it was voted to devote a sum of money to the cause of the strike and I was sent to give the strikers all the aid in my power and every mile I travel and every bite I eat is paid for out of the funds of my local union.

"To the business men of Wheeling, I want to state that your interests and our's are identical, I tell you that is a fact. Why is it that when the tariff was put on sugar, in one day a few men cleared ten millions of dollars? Was that a strike? You say no, it is lawful. But I say it was a strike, and as long as we advocate nothing but what is right the day is not far distant when the people at Washington will stop selling us out for their personal gain. The interest of the business men and wage earners should be more consolidated. Our business men and wage earners should stand together. (Applause.)

"The newspapers call us "agitators". Now, I have no objection to that term if it is used in the proper sense. Any question must win by agitation, but many use the word, in the sense of renegade. I stand here as a lawyer, pleading the cause of labor, just as an attorney does that of a capitalist. (Applause.) Let the people of West Virginia be true to themselves, and true to their neighbors. If you are not in the trades unions, get there, for God's sake. If the miners lose this strike, every one of you will lose something, even if you think you are all right, and have a steady job. If the miner goes down, all must go down to some degree."

At this point the speaker referred to the incident of the denial of free speech at Pocahontas, and said he had not learned until last evening that Pocahontas was across the Virginia State line, and he tendered an apology to Governor Atkinson for anything which might been said resulting from his ignorance of State geography. Mr. Rea spoke for a few minutes longer in the same strain, and then gave way to Mr. Tighe, who at once introduced Mr. Debs, the main speaker of the evening.

Mr. Debs' Speech.

Mr. Debs was received with applause as he came forward. When speaking was possible he said:

"Ladies and Gentlemen and Fellow Citizens of West Virginia - Such a meeting as this is unusually significant. It bears testimony to the face that the people in every walk of life are aroused, and that there is on every hand an increasing interest in the labor question, and that i has expanded to such proportions that it is taking precedence over all other matters. I shall not appeal to your prejudices. I would not if I could arouse your passions or incite the populace to your patriotism, and I ask you to examine the conditions under which millions of your fellow beings are dragging out a wretched existence, and to ask you to get closer together so close that you can hear one another's heart throbs. In the words of Paul, let us reason together. A great strike is in existence. More than 180,000 miners are engaged in a struggle for enough wages to keep soul and body together. With their families they represent nearly one million people.

There are a great many excellent people who are opposed to strikes under all circumstances. Let me admit in all candor that I, too, am opposed to strikes. Most of the time strikes are of little avail, but now and then there comes a time when men must choose between & strike and starvation and slavery, and such a time is upon us now. (Applause). I understand perfectly the misfortune of being out of employment. But there is a condition infinitely worse - that of the American workingman degraded and reduced to a point where he can no longer resist oppression. Then it is a duty to strike. I would remind you that we live under a strike government (Applause.) Every stripe and star that dignifies and glorifies the flag is the result of a strike. Our forefathers struck at Lexington, and again at Concord, and so on in a succession of strikes. And against what? Tyranny and oppression and for liberty and independence, and had it not been for those striking forefathers you and I would to-day be subjects of Great Britain instead of sovereign American citizens. (Applause.)

"It is sometimes charged that my colleagues and myself are agitators. I plead guilty to the indictment. (Laughter.) I accept the compliment. (Laughter.) The progress of the world has been made possible only by agitators. (Applause.) Moses was an agitator. (Laughter) The progress of the world has been made possible only by agitators. (Applause) Moses was an agitator. (Laughter.) So was Socrates. So was Socrates. So was Jesus Christ. (Applause.) And the scribes and Pharisees nailed Him to the cross. The world has the happy habit of crucifying its saviors and crowning its oppressors. (Applause.) The trouble is, we have too little consideration in this world. So far we are creatures of circumstances. (A voice: "That's the stuff.") I believe in speaking the truth at all times, though the stars fall. You tell me to respect public opinion. Let me admit to you that I have no faith in public opinion, as either counsellor or guide. Public opinion, as a general rule, has been and is wrong. The few have always led the world, and finally the minority becomes the majority, and this is the right view. It is not always popular to speak the truth, and no one understands that more perfectly than the ordinary politician. (Laughter, and a voice: "Hit'em again, Debs.") I'll get around to them before I get through. (Laughter.) There are some people who are perfectly honest, yet who are inclined to tell the truth about the labor question, yet they say they are with us. If you are with us, why not speak out? The man who is right ought to speak openly. I believe in keeping on good terms with myself, and if I am afraid to do so, I am dishonest. Self-respect is a great thing. I don't want to be in the predicament of the man who jumped out of bed in the night and exclaimed: "There is nobody in this room," (Laughter.) I propose to walk with my self-respect, and go to bed with my manhood. (Applause.)

"Now I come to a discussion of the question of this great mining strike. It is not a strike in the usual acceptance of the term. It is not a strike for recognition or position, but a strike against starvation and rags. It was only yesterday I saw a miner in the Fairmont region. He had worked for three months, and he was in debt to the Company $2.77. (Applause.) Nor is that an extreme instance. I have in my possession the time sheets of the men out there, and I know whereof I speak, and I am prepared to substantiate every statement I make by the documentary evidence.

"In the first place, the Fairmont miner is robbed by fraudulent measurement. It is a notorious fact. It has been ascertained by the correspondent of the New York Journal, who made a full and impartial investigation, and reported the facts to that great paper, that cars which were supposed to hold two tons of coal actually, held two and a half tons and two and three-quarters tons. (A voice, "Right you are.") And not only that, but after deducting his supplies - that is, the powder, and oil, and tools, and fifty cents a month for the company doctor, whether any one is sick or not, the miner nets but 18 or 19 cents a ton. But this is not all, nor the worst of it all. The miner is not paid in money. He is given a check, or a book of checks, and is compelled to deal at the company store, and the farmers in that vicinity will tell you that the miner is compelled to pay from 20 to 30 per cent more for his goods than the other customers. (A voice, "Right you are, old man.") All the miner has is his labor, and he is compelled to sell that at the cheapest, and to buy at the dearest rates. Under that system every right of the individual is hopelessly lost. How would you citizens like some one of the individual is hopelessly lost. How would you citizens like some one else to draw your pay and spend it for you? (laughter.) That is the lot the West Virginia miner. His wife goes to the store where the check book is kept, and buys what she wants, and the checks are taken out, and although her husband works every day, at the end of the month he is in debt and has not a dollar to show for what he has done. Thus the miner is an abject slave, with no hope for him except through the back door of suicide. (Sensation.) I appeal to you to put yourselves in their places. Would you be satisfied? (A voice, "No.") I am sure you would not be. If the people of the United States could be put in that position for one week, this strike would be settled in favor of the men - that is to say, it would be settled in favor of the right and in favor of honesty.

"But they say that Debs and Rea came here to make a contest. That is the fact. If men are contented to such a state of degradation, then there is no hope for the future. But in this contest every American citizen should be an organizer. (Applause and cries of "Good.") If you could spend one day out there in the mining region, you would stand as I do, holding that such conditions are a disgrace and an outrage.

"We are making a little progress - just a little progress every day, and I have faith in the future, because I have faith in the people. They are coming around to believe in the necessity of acting. The miners and garment workers have sunk to soulless depths of degradation. I remember when the miner made five dollars a day and he could live like a white man and educate his children. But his wages have been gradually reduced, until, in my own State, the miners, on an average, before this strike, made forty-two and a half cents a day. I am familiar with their condition."

At this point Mr. Debs spoke in detail of the condition of the miners in some sections of the country particularly citing Brookdale, Ala., where the men, although working hard, never see any money, and just manage to get enough clothes to make them presentable on the streets. Proceeding he said:

"John Bright, once said that the nation lived in a cottage. It was a beautiful and poetic idea. But a large proportion of the wage earners among our citizens no longer live in a cottage, for the cottage implies a home. Byron said: "When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; and when Rome falls - the world." Here and now, we say what when the American home falls, then falls America, and when America falls, there falls the greatest country in the world. I do not say the American home is to fall; but I do say the American home is in jeopardy when a man has to work for forty- two and a half cents a day. (Applause.) The average miner does not live in a cottage. He lives in a hut, a hovel, sometimes a hole in the ground hardly fit for wild beats. He works hard, yet his return is little. His habitation cannot he a happy one. His wife is discouraged - she has been trying to live on fifteen or twenty cents a day - the children are half naked, ignorant, and all is wretched. And after ignorance comes crime, and after crime punishment, in the shape of the prison or the life strangled out on the gallows. These are the products of conditions. Under proper conditions we have true manhood and virtuous womanhood; under vicious conditions humanity sinks to the level of the beast. Go to the large centres of population - to New York and Chicago - and you will see hundreds of thousands of people huddled together, ignorant, vicious and depraved, and as a natural result of these conditions there is not a State at present with adequate capacity for the punishment of its criminals. This question appeals to the patriotism of every honest citizen of the republic. And I want the ear of the business men of this community for a little while. I want to say to them that they are just as much interested in this matter as the miners. If they are defeated, you will suffer to a corresponding degree. If the miner gets but forty-two cents a day he must live on it somehow. He cannot buy good, wholesome food. He can't pay a grocery bill. He can't wear good clothes. He cannot become a factor as a consumer. If he has children and they are sick he cannot pay the doctor: if he is wronged he cannot employ a lawyer; and so it is all around. The entire superstructure of our system rests upon labor- labor is the representative and all important thing. Labor is the foundation, and if the foundation is weak, the superstructure cannot be strong. (Applause.)

"Who is to be benefitted by the defeat of strikers? Will it be the business man? No! Then who will it be? I will tell you; it will be the few millionaires who traffic in the misery of the common people. (Applause.) A fair standard of labor should be secured, in the interests of capital, of labor, and of the country at large. No country can ______ where labor is impoverished ______ is an axiom in economics. Labor produces everything; it pays all the revenues, and it ought to be able to maintain a living wage.

"But they say, "What have the miners of West Virginia got to do with it?" I will tell you. West Virginians are mining coal and sending it to the Western markets. They might just as well send their miners there and put them to work in place of the strikers. (Applause.) But they say, West Virginia miners ought to be given a fair show, now. But suppose the strike is defeated, and western prices go down, do you think that West Virginia prices will not follow suit? You can't send West Virginia cal there then. (Applause.) But you say. "The West Virginia operators are paying their men living wages." How long have they been paying them, and how long will they continue to pay them, if the strike is a failure? (Applause.) Four years ago your wages increased. (A voice: "Nit."). You were deceived all along the line. (Applause.) You are enjoying a boom at present, but it will be a short lived one. They are willing to pay big wages now, but they are speculating on the empty stomachs of the miners, and every dollar gotten in that way is blood money, and represents the misery of your fellow citizens. The workingmen of the country are not benefitted. The consumers who buy in small quantities are compelled to pay the price. The real benefit goes to the big men. I declare it to be the duty of the miners of West Virginia to drop his tools until living wages are paid to all. (Applause.) You have become disorganized, and therefore demoralized. The strike is clearly right, and will prevail, but if it shall fail through the West Virginia miners, and after that happens and the men are scourged back, at starvation wages, you here will be helpless and you will not dare to strike, and no one knows that fact better than the operators. The result will be that, you having worked until the other miners were defeated, they will work in turn until you are defeated. The thing to do is to stand together, and see that an uniform scale is made in each district, that will do justice to each, and then all can go back to work in a body, and you will all be earning living wages with no more strikes in sight. (Applause.) But as long as the miners of one State can be used against the miners of another, wages will go down until the bedrock of degradation is reached. (Applause.) I do not think we will fail. I am not in the habit of looking on the dark side of things. I believe we are making a little progress. (Applause.) The most hopeful thing is that workingmen are beginning to think and as they think they are wondering why they must draw their rags a little closer so as not to touch the silks they have woven, why they must not walk in the shadow of the palaces they have built but may not enter. And when they see these things properly, they will take their own - not by force nor by violence, but by the ballot (applause) which falls lightly as a snow-flake yet which works the will of man as the lightning does the will of God. (Applause.) Labor is the creator of all that is useful and beautiful in this world, and shall not labor come to its own? Who shall doubt it? As the mariner plowing Southern seas turns his eyes to the Southern cross blazing in the sky, as a beacon to guide him on his way, let labor everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending and the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning."

Mr. Debs then turned his attention to the Courts, in their acts against labor and in favor of capitol, and after discussing this in a most interesting manner, to the delight of his audience, concluded at half-past ten, the crowd greeting him with three cheers.


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