Learn about the case — historical background and documents
Legal Arguments in Court
Lawyers for the U.S. government:
1. In the July 2, 1894, request for an injunction against the labor leaders in the Pullman strike, the U.S. attorney argued that the strike presented a threat to the free flow of interstate commerce and the delivery of the mails, and that therefore the union leaders should be restrained by an injunction as authorized by the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890.
U.S. Attorney Thomas Milchrist stated that almost 100,000 members of Debs’ union had gone on strike and that twenty railroads were slowed or entirely stopped. Other unions supported the Pullman boycott and conducted wildcat strikes of their own. Violence broke out between union members and non-union railroad employees at rail yards. Trains carrying produce, meat, and passengers were halted, and in some areas trains carrying the U.S. mail could not get to their destinations.
2. In an information presented to the U.S. Circuit Court on July 17, 1894, the U.S. attorneys asserted that Debs and the other union officers had violated the injunction and were in contempt of the court.
The government attorneys contended that the union officers had not modified their leadership of the strike and had continued to urge American Railway Union members to block trains, to prevent men from working for the railroads, and to engage in violence and intimidation. The information said that the union leadership had full power to call or to end the strike. It also argued that the union leaders knew of the strike-related violence before the injunction was issued and that they knew that their support for continuing the strike would produce additional violence.
3. In arguments before the Supreme Court, Attorney General Richard Olney argued that the federal courts had authority to issue an injunction in restraint of the labor leaders in the Pullman strike and to punish for contempt of the injunction.
Olney argued that the Pullman strike presented all of the criteria for an injunction. The strikers could not be restrained by criminal prosecution, the strike threatened irreparable harm in the danger it presented to private property and to interstate commerce, and the strike threatened to undermine the government’s rights and duties as the trustee of the nation’s transportation system. Injunctions were usually issued to protect private property, Olney acknowledged, but he said that the federal courts had long considered the government’s control of the nation’s highways the equivalent of ownership. Debs’ acknowledgment that the orders of the federal court ended the strike was, for Olney, confirmation of the wisdom of the injunction.
Olney denied that the punishment for contempt of the injunction violated the right to a trial by jury. The same act may constitute a crime and present a threat to private property that calls for immediate restraint by an injunction.
Lawyers for Debs and the American Railway Union:
1. Debs and the other officers of the American Railway Union had not violated the injunction and therefore could not be found in contempt.
The union officers’ attorneys denied that their clients had the authority to call or to end a strike, as the government maintained, since only the rank and file membership could begin or end a strike. The attorneys also denied that the officers had sent any telegrams threatening workers who failed to join the strike and boycott against the Pullman Company. The officers had no prior knowledge of violence and sent no messages that sanctioned or encouraged violence, and the officers insisted that what violence there was had involved no union member participation. The telegrams submitted to the court as evidence of violation of the injunction in fact contained no reference to any obstruction of interstate commerce. The disruption of commerce, according to the union officers, resulted from decision of the railroad companies to halt all trains from which Pullman cars had been detached. The union officers had consulted with their counsels for advice on how best to abide by the injunction. In his brief submitted to the Supreme Court, Clarence Darrow noted that the information charging violation of the injunction did not include a single allegation of an illegal act on the part of the union officers, only that some illegal conduct followed the legal action of the union.
2. The jail sentence for contempt of the injunction deprived Debs and the union officers of their right to a trial by jury.
In the petition to the Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus, the union officers argued that the jail sentence for contempt of the injunction amounted to a conviction without an indictment and without a jury, and thus was a violation of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution. They alleged that the government had improperly sought an injunction as a means of punishing a violation of the criminal code without a jury trial.
3. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act authorization for injunctions against restraints of trade did not apply to labor unions.
The petition for the writ of habeas corpus argued that the Sherman Anti-Trust Act had no application to the facts stated in the injunction or in the information claiming violation of the injunction. Attorney Lyman Trumbull argued in the Supreme Court that the section of the Sherman Act conferring the authority to issue injunctions was unconstitutional because Congress could not grant the federal courts the power to impose criminal penalties in a proceeding in which there was no access to a jury trial.
4. The circuit court’s holding of contempt effectively deprived workers of the right to organize and to strike.
In his brief to the Supreme Court, Clarence Darrow warned that the restrictions imposed on the union officers by the injunction and the contempt order effectively destroyed the workers’ ability to organize and engage in any cooperative labor action. Darrow said that the court’s distinction between a strike and a sympathetic boycott undermined the effectiveness of any cooperative labor action because it would disallow any strike except by those who were directly affected by grievances. The foundation of the labor movement was the ability to organize in support of one’s fellow workers. The right to strike would be made meaningless as well by any attempt to hold workers criminally responsible for violence on the part of others. Darrow acknowledged that violence often resulted from strikes, but so too did it result from management decisions to cut wages or to lock out workers. In the current conflicts of industrial life, strikes were an indispensable defense of workers if they were to “unite for mutual defense, for the betterment of their condition, to work or to cease to work—in short, to be free men.”
The Debs Case: Labor, Capital, and the Federal Courts of the 1890s