The Homestead Strike

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

The Homestead Strike

Source

The Seeds of Trouble. One of the most violent business-labor clashes of this turbulent period involved a company that typified the new industriai economy: Carnegie Steel, which by 1892 had risen to become the nations largest steelmaker. Because of the prominence of its owner and because it was industries such as steel that were driving this new economy, the strike at Carnegies Homestead steel plant in western Pennsylvania became an emblematic struggle of the age. Prior to the strike, Carnegie had publicly endorsed unionization and had settled earlier disputes with his workers on relatively generous terms. But the man he chose in 1889 to manage affairs at his Homestead milk, Henry C. Frick, was made of different stuff. As an operator of coal mines, Frick had established a reputation not only as a shrewd manager, but also as a tough union buster; in 1890 he had violently suppressed strikes at his coalfields. He came to Homestead, where twelve mills employed almost four thousand men, determined to dismantle the powerful leverage their union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, held over operations at the plant. Amalgamated was founded in 1876 and by 1891 had a membership of more than twenty-four thousand, making it the largest craft union in the nation at the time. However, it excluded unskilled workers and had failed to organize the larger steel plants. Homestead was the exception and, therefore, a test case for the union.

Preparations for Siege. Frick made his move in contract renewal negotiations in the spring of 1892, demanding wage reductions and announcing that the company would no longer bargain with Amalgamated. Meanwhile, Frick contracted with the Pinkerton Detective Agency for a force of armed guards. At the mills themselves, management dug in for a battle, ringing Fort Frick, as the workers now named the plant, with watchtowers, gun slits, and a twelve-foot-high steel fence.

Battle. The strike began on 1 July 1892, after the union suspended work and Frick closed the mills and announced his plans to reopen using nonunion labor. Workers surrounded the plant with an armed picket line. Frick tried to bring in three hundred Pinkerton guards surreptitiously, on two barges and a towboat up the Monongahela River, but as the guards tried to disembark on 6 July, they confronted a mass of armed workers and their families. Gunfire broke out between the strikers

and the Pinkertons, who had been stranded on the riverbank. In the ensuing battle, seven guards and nine workers were killed; some of the wounded (twenty Pinkertons and forty strikers) later died. Securing assurances of safe passage from strike leader Hugh ODonnell, the guards surrendered but had to make their way through an angry mob to escape.

Defeat. For a short time an uneasy peace hovered. On 10 July state militia arrived to enforce the peace. The strikers greeted the troops with a brass band and a formai welcoming committee, but Gov. Robert E. Pattison had sent the militia to enforce order on the companys terms, escorting strikebreakers to work and rounding up strike leaders to face indictments for murder, riot, and conspiracy. On 23 July, Alexander Berkman, an anarchist who became enraged by Fricks treatment of the Homestead strikers, shot the businessman twice in the neck while he sat in his Pittsburgh office. Although severely wounded, Frick survived and stubbornly refused to leave his office for treatment until the dose of the workday. Meanwhile the strikers enlisted the support of Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor, which tried to mobilize an effort to prevent the recruitment of strikebreakers, to organize a legal defense for the strikers facing trial, and to support the Homestead workers through sympathy strikes. Public opinion condemned Carnegie and Frick for their repressive measures, and a locai jury quickly acquitted the three defendants brought to trial. Nevertheless, by this point, the tide was turning against the strikers. Berkmans violent act discredited the labor movement. In addition Frick had the mills running on scab labor (nonunion workers) by September, and on 20 November, after four months, Amalgamated called off the strike. Our victory is now complete and most gratifying, Frick cabled Carnegie in Scotland. Do not think we will ever have any serious labor trouble again.

Source

Leon Wolff, Lockout, the Story of the Homestead Strike: A Study of Violence, Unionism, and the Carnegie Steel Empire (New York: Longmans, Green, 1965).