In July 1892, a dispute between Carnegie Steel and the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers exploded in violence at a steel mill owned by Andrew Carnegie in Homestead, Pennsylvania. In what would be one of the deadliest labor-management disputes in the country’s history, a dozen people were killed when strikers attacked 300 Pinkerton detectives hired by factory management as security guards .
Carnegie Steel v United Steelworkers
In 1892, Andrew Carnegie had forged his way from his poor childhood in Scotland to become one of the richest and most powerful industrialists in the United States. He was the majority shareholder of Carnegie Steel, the country’s largest steel maker, as well as a leading philanthropist who expressed public support for union causes, including the right of workers to organize.
But when Henry Clay Frick, president and CEO of Carnegie Steel, wanted to cut wages for workers at the Homestead plant, located near Pittsburgh on the south bank of the Monongahela River, Carnegie backed Frick’s efforts. despite his pro-Labor public stance. Homestead was one of the largest in Carnegie Steel’s vast network of iron, steel, and coke factories, and Frick’s efforts would pit it against the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, one of the largest unions across the country.
Homestead strike begins
With the union’s three-year contract with Carnegie ending in June 1892, Frick announced pay cuts for hundreds of Homestead workers. After refusing to negotiate with the union, he closed the Homestead steel plant on June 29, blocking 3,800 workers. Only about 725 of those workers were from Amalgamated, but all voted in favor of the strike, surprising Frick, who had assumed that only union members would go on strike.
After Frick had a tall fence topped with barbed wire built around the factory itself, which led workers to call it “Fort Frick,” armed workers surrounded the factory and cordoned off the road. city. In order to protect the strikebreakers he planned to hire, Frick followed the lead of many industrialists fighting against unions and brought in the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Pinkerton detectives were known to have infiltrated unions and broken strikes across the country, including at another Carnegie factory a few years earlier.
Arrival of the Pinkertons and outbreak of violence
Early on the morning of July 6, around 300 detectives from Pinkerton arrived on barges pulled by tugs along the Monongahela River. When news arrived of their approach, thousands of strikers and their families rushed to the river to prevent them from disembarking at Homestead. The two groups exchanged gunfire, the Pinkertons armed with Winchester repeating rifles and workers on higher ground firing at the barges with old rifles and even an old cannon.
After the Pinkertons repeatedly raised a white flag, the workers finally accepted their surrender in the early evening. Nearly a dozen people had been killed by that time, and a host of men, women and children brutally beat the Pinkertons who came ashore after their surrender. At Frick’s request, the governor of Pennsylvania soon sent 8,500 National Guard troops to Homestead, who quickly secured the steel mill and placed the factory and surrounding town under martial law.
As the conflict at Homestead unfolded, Carnegie was on vacation in a remote castle in Scotland, where he spent much of each year. Although workers and members of the press tried to reach him, he remained unreachable but remained in communication with Frick, whose actions he approved.
Impact of the Homestead strike
Although the Homestead workers initially enjoyed wide public support, that changed after their brutal treatment of the Pinkertons, as well as an attempted assassination of Frick in late July by anarchist Alexander Berkman, who had no connection with the union. Homestead resumed full operations in mid-August 1892, thanks to some 1,700 scabs, including some of the state’s first black metalworkers.
Many strikers had returned to work by mid-October and the union admitted defeat the following month. The leaders of the strike were charged with murder and others with less serious crimes. None have been convicted, but the damage to unionized workers at Homestead has been done. With Amalgamated out of the way, Carnegie slashed wages across the board, implemented a 12-hour workday, and cut hundreds of jobs in the years to come.
The Homestead debacle helped deflect public opinion against the use of salaried workers like the Pinkertons in labor disputes, and 26 states passed laws prohibiting it in the years following the strike. Carnegie’s own reputation has suffered irreparable damage, with critics calling him a hypocrite and coward for hiding in Scotland and allowing Frick to do the dirty work.
Yet Carnegie Steel’s profits continued to rise as its productivity exceeded that of its competitors, even though the number of Amalgamated members rose from over 20,000 in 1892 to 8,000 in 1895. The United States United for the next 26 years, before making a resurgence at the end of WWI.
The strike at Homestead Mill. American PBS experience.
The Battle of Homestead in 1892. The Battle of Homestead Foundation.
Leon Wolff, “Battle at Homestead”. American heritage. Volume 16, Number 3, April 1965. 1892 Homestead Strike. AFL-CIO.org.