Eugene V. Debs: “Back Up the Teachers”

Eugene Debs supported the struggles of workers everywhere for power on the job. That included Chicago teachers — who he praised in this 1915 article, never before reprinted, for doggedly fighting a local ban on their union.

Eugene V. Debs, photographed in 1921. (Library of Congress / Picryl)

Chicago teachers are known for their militancy. In 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union staged a landmark walkout that clogged the city’s streets and singlehandedly demonstrated the power of the strike. About a century earlier, the Chicago Teachers Federation (CTF) — founded in 1897 — successfully resisted a ban on their union by the city’s Board of Education.

And one of the CTF’s most prominent cheerleaders was none other than Eugene V. Debs. Debs, the famed trade unionist and Socialist, is well known for his stirring speeches to miners, steelworkers, and other totems of the industrial working class. But at a time when public sector workers were almost uniformly nonunion, Debs recognized that teachers, too, must be welcomed into the halls of organized labor.

In the following article, written in September 1915 while on a trip through the South and published in the American Socialist, Debs urges organized labor and his fellow Socialists to back the teachers’ cause. We’re pleased to bring you the brief missive, never before republished.

— by Shawn Gude

The people down here in Texas are keenly interested in the outcome of the fight at Chicago between the teachers and the grafting interests that are bent upon destroying their union. This morning’s press dispatches announce the latest developments in the conflict. If the teachers at Chicago lose, which does not appear possible to me, a precedent will have been established which the corrupt exploiting interests will take advantage of all over the country.

It is a dastardly piece of business, this cowardly attack upon the teachers by the board of education, whose members ought to be the teachers’ best friends. But we are not left in doubt as to the real animus and object of this assault. It is not only the almost a million dollars a month the board handles that will be the more readily available to the vultures that prey upon the schools’ funds, but the whole scheme of education is to be subverted and prostituted and made to serve the interests of the looters, thieves, grafters, and white slavers, instead of enlightening training and equipping the children of the people.

Socialists in particular should take a vigorous part in this fight. The shameless attack upon the teachers should be promptly met by united and determined protest of the Socialist Party and of the entire labor movement.

Would it not be possible for the American Socialist to issue a “Teachers’ Edition” and flood the city of Chicago with it? I believe such an issue, challenging the grafting powers and presenting the inside facts of the case, and exposing the true animus of this sinister attack upon the teachers, could be made a tremendous success.

If such an issue is published the eleven board members who voted to crucify the teachers on a cross of graft should be pilloried for public execration as the archenemies of schools and of public education.

The names of these recreants should be published in black type and the connection of all of them traced to their corrupt and contaminating source.

The fight of the teachers is our fight and we must back them up to the last and until victory perches upon their banners.