The Homestead Strike of 1892 is the labor/management classic for today's manager. It would determine the path and the nature of industrial unions, as well as management–union and public–union relations. The Homestead Strike would leave an indelible mark on American business. The roots of mistrust, biased press coverage, political intervention, and overly strong stands would be planted on the river floodplain of Homestead across from Pittsburgh. The struggle would bring good and bad. It forced all Americans to look at the nature of work, business, jobs, and the economy. It is rare that when Americans shed blood, real change does not come. The relationship between socialism and American trade unionism would be forged in the blood of the workers and managers of Homestead. American unionism would become distinct from that of Europe after Homestead. The concerns and views of both union leaders and managers at Homestead have a familiar ring today.
The gathering of forces at Homestead would lead to an end of many icons in America. It would be here that America's strongest union would face America's largest company, Carnegie Steel. Industrialists Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie would have their Waterloo. It would be the beginning of the end of the Amalgamated Association of the Iron and Steel Workers, but, like the Alamo, it would be the rallying cry of American unionization for decades. The Homestead Strike changed management's, the union's, and the public's view of concepts like property rights and European-style union socialism.
Both the Carnegie empire and the Amalgamated union approached July 1892 at the peak of their power. Carnegie was the richest man in the world, and his company was the biggest and most profitable. Homestead was one of America's great melting pots as Slavs and Hungarians poured in to fill the thousands of unskilled jobs created in America's largest factory. The local natives, skilled Western European Americans, were angered by this new influx of unskilled workers. The Amalgamated union was a skilled crafts union that excluded the majority of the unskilled labors in the workforce. The ethnic mix would become a major complication in the struggle. This strike was far from America's bloodiest or biggest, but it is one of the most remembered.
The buildup to the 1892 Homestead Strike started at the 1891 convention of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, held a few miles downriver at Pittsburgh. The convention had 261 delegates representing 24,068 members. It was America's largest crafts union, representing the skilled crafts workers of the iron and steel industry. The union, however, was fighting the changes inherent in industrialization and technological automation. The Amalgamated union was opposing disturbing trends that eroded the skilled crafts system infrastructure. The union was holding to its skilled apprenticeship system of seniority, control over the amount of production that could be scheduled, and bans on overtime unless all crafts workers were employed. The union remained opposed to the entry of any Eastern Europeans such as Slovaks and Hungarians, who were the unskilled fraction of the workforce. As the possible strike approached in July 1892, hundreds from the national press filled Pittsburgh hotels as both sides fought for public support of their views. National politicians came also as they framed the conflict as part of the tariffs-versus-free trade debate of the time. The Democrats cited Carnegie's profits and poor wages as evidence that years of protective steel tariffs had failed to help the workers. Homestead had been recognized by both Carnegie and the union as the location of Armageddon for the showdown of labor and steel management.
The real battle was, for the most part, against the advance of technology, which was reducing the skill level needed. Homestead represented a stand for management as well as reinforcement of property rights and control of the means of production. Carnegie had purchased the failed Homestead Bessemer steel mill and gutted it, putting in the latest technology. Carnegie and Frick, his general manager, had eliminated hundreds of skilled workers. Carnegie had brought in thousands of unskilled Eastern European workers and was expanding their role in the operations. Furthermore, the economy of 1892 was now in a downturn, which gave Carnegie the upper hand that he had played so well in the past.
For most, the facts of Homestead are surprising. The unionized skilled workers at Homestead numbered 800 out of about 3,800 total employees. The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers represented an even smaller group, 325 highly paid and skilled workers. The wage argument was initially with those 325 workers. Even more surprising might be that the average American worker at the time made $8.50 a week, while a union steelworker at Homestead averaged $35.00 a week. In terms of a wage cuts, the new proposal from Carnegie meant a cut from 40 percent to 20 percent. The 3,000-plus unskilled laborers joined the strike, having no place to go.
In early June, Carnegie wisely left Pittsburgh for a vacation in Scotland. On June 25, 1892, Frick closed off negotiations and started plans for a lockout. Meantime, reporters from around the world were flooding into Pittsburgh. One paper estimated there were at least 135 journalists from all over the globe. Homestead was a story waiting to happen.
Frick set up an 18-foot wooden fence with barbed wire and allegedly with rifle slots. Sewers leading from the mill were provided with gratings. Arc light searchlights were also installed on 12-foot towers. It was rumored (falsely) that the barbed wire was electrified, using Westinghouse's new alternating current. In early June, Frick had contracted with the Pinkerton Company, which supplied hired armed guards for industry and others, for an army of 300 guards. The hiring of Pinkerton guards, while unpopular, was not unusual. However, the number needed for America's largest industrial plant was unusual. Pinkerton was short on trained guards because of prolonged strikes in the mines of Utah and Colorado. Pinkerton had been advertising in western cities for armed guards at five dollars a day plus food and lodging. They mustered these raw recruits in Chicago, a mix of college students, drifters, and laid-off workers. The union similarly prepared its forces, which included the unskilled workers. They patrolled the river, the railroad tracks, and the bridges. They assumed scabs would be sent in, so scouts on horses were sent up and down the river to warn the town of any approaching company men.
Things had reached the breaking point in Homestead as the saloons filled up and effigies of Carnegie, Frick, and others were hung on telegraph poles. Frick laid out his plan to have the Pinkerton guards enter the works, turning it into a fort. They would enter via the Ohio and Monongahela Rivers. The union had managed to gain the support of the unskilled workers, which surprised Frick and Carnegie, but it was a weak alliance. The unskilled workers were caught in the middle and could only hope for a quick settlement. By July 4, 1892, the workers had gotten word of men being hired by Pinkerton in Chicago. On July 5, the workers pushed down the fence and surged into the mill. Local authorities were overwhelmed.
The Pinkertons moved to the Homestead plant by two river barges on the Ohio River. The barges had been purchased and converted into covered troop carriers. These were floating forts described as “Noah's Arks.” They were equipped with dining halls and kitchens, complete with a hired steward and 20 waiters. Winchester rifles were in closed boxes to be opened only by command. As the barges moved toward the plant, fog and early morning darkness helped cover their approach. A horseman spotted the barges and was sent to awake Homestead. At 2:30 a.m., the Homestead Electric Works sounded a whistle alarm. Residents and workers, like the minutemen of old, got out of bed and picked up old family guns. There was some pushing at the mill, and then shots rang out. Three steelworkers were killed on the spot and dozens wounded. An old 20-pounder Revolutionary War cannon was fired, missing the barges and hitting and killing a steelworker. The Pinkertons had some wounded as well and retreated to their floating forts. Inaccurate cannon fire and shots continued as the Pinkertons huddled in their floating forts. The Pinkertons had some protection but lacked air-conditioning, and the barges were becoming sweaty iron furnaces. The Pinkertons were not professionals, so they doubted the value of their lives in this strange action. In Pittsburgh, Frick tried to use the courts to put pressure on the governor to send troops. Homesteaders added to the barrage by tossing dynamite. Telegraph wire reports to Washington and Congress brought calls to repeal the tariffs that had helped Carnegie Steel. Meanwhile, the Homesteaders poured oil on the Monongahela River and started a few surface fires. By 7:00 p.m., the Pinkertons had had it and raised a white flag. The count was 13 dead and 36 wounded. Captured Pinkertons were forced through a crowd of angry workers who freely beat them with clubs.
The sheriff struggled to find deputies, and the union leadership in Homestead struggled to regain control of the town. Union men in Chicago talked about sending men and guns. The Congress debated daily. The governor finally sent troops after Pittsburgh political bosses pulled every string possible; still, the troops were not greeted in Homestead. Rails were torn up to slow the trains, but the troops were in place by July 12. With the town under military control, Congress sent a special committee to hold hearings. With Homestead peaceful and under martial law, the advantage passed to Carnegie's company. Union president Hugh O'Donnell called unsuccessfully for a national boycott of Carnegie steel products, and Samuel Gompers came to help support the unsuccessful boycott. O'Donnell appealed by letter on July 16 to the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Whitelaw Reid, to allow the union to save some face by reopening the negotiations. A strong-willed Frick, however, refused, sensing he had a victory. On July 14, O'Donnell went to New York City to try to win over the Republicans, who were counting on the labor vote for high tariffs in the fall presidential election. While O'Donnell was in New York with the Republicans, Frick started to advertise for scabs, according to the long-range plan. Things changed again as the socialists entered the crisis from places like New York and Chicago. On July 23, a clean-cut socialist and activist in a suit, Alexander Berkman, entered Frick's office at the Chronicle-Telegraph building on Pittsburgh's Fifth Avenue.
The socialist and anarchist movements in the United States had been following the action at Homestead and hoped to use it to their political gain. The most radical left fringe was the anarchists, who even rejected the minor organizational bent of Karl Marx. The anarchists had always looked for opportunities to get involved in labor scuffles. They were best known for the Haymarket Riot in Chicago. For them, the capitalists were the evil of the world. Berkman had arrived alone in Pittsburgh around July 16 with little money and a gun, wearing the suit his girlfriend, Emma Goldman, had suggested. Frick was in the office with his partner and second in command, John Leishman. Berkman rushed in and fired, hitting Frick in the shoulder. Frick fell, and Berkman fired again, hitting Frick in the neck. Berkman's entrance into the crisis changed things. The union wanted no part of Berkman's act. While the press continued to villainize Frick, they also hailed his courage and nerve. Frick survived and remained in control from his bedroom. His courage and resolve were amazing. The religion of the workers was Catholicism, and the local priests and press saw more evil in anarchists than capitalists. An editorial in the Catholic World in 1893 noted: “The distribution of wealth is frightful in its very inequalities. Still I do believe that the social system is radically and hopelessly wrong. I do believe that the American workmen can right their wrongs by the machinery at their disposal and without violating any rights or any law, human or divine.” The public across the nation was concerned about the existence of anarchist cells in major cities and the rising tide of socialism, which forced unions to expel known socialists. The public turned against the union. Still, the public had little stomach for the use of Pinkertons and troops in labor disputes. For the next few years, Homestead would be debated in major newspapers across the nation.
Pennsylvania governor Robert Patterson was a Democrat, and the Homestead uprising played into the politics to break the workers’ support for Republicans, which had been due to the Republicans’ tariffs. The White House was watching the problems at Homestead closely. President Benjamin Harrison was struggling and needed the labor vote, while the Democrats were linking Homestead to the Republicans. Harrison privately was opposed to the use of armed Pinkertons, but Frick would not end the strike even “if President Harrison himself should personally request him to do so.” Frick had gone too far to consider a change. Harrison sent in troops to end the strike, and Frick replaced the striking workers. By October, Frick was in charge of the mill, and it was operating again. Democrats felt they could carry western Pennsylvania for the first time since the formation of the Republican Party in the 1850s. Torchlight parades in Homestead had floats portraying “protectionism” as a black sheep, as politicians injected their own brand of racism into the crisis. Senate Democrats came to Homestead to hold hearings. Homestead cost Harrison and the Republicans the election, and the Democrats would effectively repeal the great protective Tariff of 1890. However, the union was crushed, and it would not be until the 1930s that Pittsburgh mills would again be unionized. The American union movement moved away from the socialism, violence, and political role of unionization seen in Europe. Unions also realized the importance of full representation and solidarity.
See also: Railroad Strike of 1877
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