Eugene V. Debs: A Message From Butte On Class Struggle

If I had only known then what I know now, it would have been a lot more interesting.

In 1995, my family and I moved to Missoula, Montana for a job assignment. One of the cities that we spent the night in as we travelled westward through the state was Butte. I remember coming out of the mountains and seeing the city ahead of us. I remember visiting an acquaintance who lived and worked there. But, I don’t remember thinking about the city’s mining and labor union history. To be quite honest, I don’t know if I even knew anything about the city’s mining and labor union past, except that Butte had been the home of the great Amalgamated copper mine in the late 1890s and early 1900s.

I have just read a speech that Eugene V. Debs gave in Butte on June 16, 1902, so I thought I would do a little research about the city and its mining and union activity.

Butte Hill 1890s

Butte Hill, 1890s

The Butte Amalgamated copper mine was located on what was called the “Richest Hill on Earth.” The work, and the money to be made in Butte, drew workers from around the country as well as newly-arrived immigrants from Europe. Butte workers formed the Butte Workingmen’s Union (BWU) in 1878. In 1885, the BWU reorganized itself as the Butte Miners’ Union and disaffiliated anyone who was not a miner. Those who were disaffiliated formed smaller craft unions. In 1893, the Butte Miners’ Union was involved in the formation of the politically radical Western Federation of Miners (WFM). The WFM had a reputation for militancy in the Western states and British Columbia.

In 1900, the Butte population was 30, 470; 10,210 were foreign-born. Out of this population, 18,000 were union members in 34 different unions. These unions represented blacksmiths, brewers, construction workers, miners, musicians, teamsters, even bartenders and newsboys. Because of the labor union density in Butte at this time, the city earned the name “The Gibraltar of Unionism.”

Richest Hill

It was into this setting that Eugene V. Debs stepped June 16, 1902. He came to Butte for a day visit with no intention of delivering a speech to any crowd. Within three hours of his arrival, though, he was speaking to a full house of union workers who had assembled at the Butte Auditorium.

The title of Debs’ speech was “We Must Gain Possession of the Tools of Trade.”

Here are a number of quotes from the speech, arranged under the headings found in the printed version of the speech.

From Debs’ opening remarks

“Never was there a greater demand for intelligent, thorough, and progressive action on the part of the laboring class than now.”

Class Struggle Is On

“We are engaged in a class struggle that is convulsing all human society.”

“I would have the workers recognize these classes (worker and employer) and they ought to organize not only in the industrial field but in the political field as well.”

“I admit that I am arraying class against class, consciously, and I would have the workers recognize their exploiting masters.”

“We have government by class today and the class governing is not the working class.”

“ … if you find it to your advantage to unite upon the industrial field, why not upon the political field. You strike because you do not like the system, yet when you vote you vote to perpetuate that system.

The time has come when no union man can be true to his principles until he puts the union label on his ballot.”

As to the Old Parties

“You cannot expect any help from either of the two old parties. They are simply the two wings to the same foul bird of prey.”

Cruel Wars Abroad

“There never was a time when it was so easy to produce wealth as today … We have all the hideousness of extremes. A few have millions and millions because we are living under a system where private profit is of vastly more importance than human life. The cheapest commodity on earth today is human flesh and blood. To make a profit at the expense of human life is the central controlling motive of the capitalist system.”

World Is Changing

“The capitalists have you absolutely at their mercy. They do not consider you at all. I am not finding fault with them. I am finding fault with you, because the system cannot continue a day longer than you wish it.”

“It is only a question of time when the last vestige of competition will have disappeared and there will be only two classes – the very rich and the very poor, a class of exploiters and a class of exploited. The middle class will have gone.”

The Class Struggle

“Political parties have stood for various theories, but the only real voice in them was the power of the capitalists who used all parties equally for their own ends.”

“The struggle of labor for its own interests will be of the same strength and more irresitble when it is conscious of its own interests. That is why we urge class consciousness.”

“Without this consciousness of its right and its might labor will ever be a mere puppet before the skill and power of capital – a skill and power possessed by capital because it is conscious of itself, conscious both of its interests and its opportunities. Labor will soon become conscious of itself and of the struggle it must enter upon. The struggle has been on for a long, long time, but labor has not realized the fact and so has been divided and blinded by its methods.”

“The pressure of event has been arousing this class consciousness in labor … “

Easy With Labor United

“Thus, half asleep, labor has not only failed to gain ground in the struggle but has been decoyed into fighting for its enemy. At each election labor has divided and fought valiantly in two wings of the army, both arrayed against the cause of labor. At the ballot box alone can it win its own cause …..”

******************************

I enjoy reading the speeches and articles of Eugene V. Debs. I find each of them to be very educational and inspirational. Much of what Debs spoke or wrote is very relevant and pertinent to much of what we are experiencing, economically and politically, in the United States today. As I read the speeches and articles of Debs I learn much about the history of American politics and American labor activity. And, as I read Debs, I am encouraged regarding my own involvement in the democratic process.

The speech that Eugene V. Debs delivered in Butte, “We Must Gain Possession of the Tools of Trade”, can be read here.

Some of the information about Butte, Montana and labor was found in The Montana Pioneer article, A Labor Movement Born in Butte.

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