Near the end of the nineteenth century, Homestead, Pennsylvania , was a steel mill town with a population of more than ten thousand people. Of those inhabitants, just over thirty-four hundred were employed by Carnegie Steel Company. Of those employees, eight hundred were skilled and earned an average of $2.43 for a twelve-hour shift, or roughly twenty cents an hour. Unskilled laborers earned fourteen cents an hour.
In 1889, these wages were paid on a sliding scale that was dependent on the market price being paid for steel. This means that the higher the market price (the price paid to the steel companies by other businesses who bought their product) being paid, the higher the wages would be. If the market price dropped, so did wages. But twenty and fourteen cents an hour was the average.
This agreement between management and labor was due to expire on June 30, 1892. Of the eight hundred skilled workers, all but twenty were members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers union (formally organized association of workers that advances its members' views on wages, work hours, and labor conditions). Members were expecting better terms upon expiration of the old contract. Their expectations did not seem unrealistic. Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), owner of the mill, had publicly empathized with (claimed to understand) strikers in other industries. He even implied that he understood how their frustration led to violence.
In 1892, Carnegie was out of the country visiting his homeland of Scotland. Negotiations were in the hands of Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919), chairman of Carnegie Steel. Frick was known for his hardhearted antiunion attitude. He had no patience for workers who complained and would not tolerate rebellion in any form.
The union would not accept the new contract proposed by Carnegie Steel as it required workers to accept an 18 to 26 percent decrease in wages. Union leaders Hugh O'Donnell and John W. Gates (1855–1911) met with Frick throughout June in the hopes of reaching a compromise that both sides could accept. Frick refused to consider any negotiations. Instead, he ordered the construction of a solid-wood fence topped with barbed wire built around the mill. Workers soon called it “Fort Frick.”
As meetings continued to be held without progress, frustrated workers made dummies that looked like Frick and superintendent J. A. Potter and hung them on mill property. Potter sent men to tear down the dummies, but Carnegie employees turned the water hoses on them. Frick used this event as an excuse to order a lockout (an event in which workers are forbidden to work and are refused pay). In addition to the 3 miles of fencing he had built, Frick contacted Pinkerton National Detective Agency. He paid $5 a day to each of three hundred detectives to act as guards at the mill. The detectives arrived on July 6. By this time, workers had already barricaded themselves inside the steel plant.
Frick never had the chance to carry out his plan to hire strikebreakers. Citizens of the town joined Carnegie Steel's displaced workers and confronted the Pinkerton detectives just outside the mill. With both sides armed, on July 6 they battled from 4 AM until 5 PM. It is not clear who fired the first shot, but when gunfire had ceased, seven strikers and three detectives were dead, with numerous others injured. The strikers surrendered, and on July 12 eight thousand state troopers marched into Homestead and took control.
Public opinion was initially against Carnegie Steel in this dispute— but not because of the bloodshed or the damage that resulted from the conflict. In truth, both sides were guilty of taking the law into their own hands. Instead, Americans were disturbed that a labor-management disagreement could escalate into open warfare between one of the nation's most powerful companies and one of the most highly respected labor unions. However, as details of the strike were reported to the public, sentiment turned against the labor union. Most citizens believed the workers behaved brutally and used unnecessary violence in the confrontation.
The tension between company and union worsened on July 23, when anarchist, or rebel, Alexander Berkman (1870–1936) shot and stabbed Frick in his office. Frick was not seriously injured, and Berkman was caught. But that incident put an end to the steel union. Even though Berkman was not a union member, the public was unaware of this fact and perceived his attack on Frick as merely another strategy waged by the union against management. It would be another forty years before the steel industry formed a new labor union.
Carnegie's Homestead plant reopened on July 27 with a thousand new workers under the protection of the military. The company pressed charges against O'Donnell and the strikers, but no jury would find them guilty. Both sides decided to drop the matter. The strike officially ended on November 20, 1892. Three hundred locked-out employees were rehired and joined the newly hired workers in the mill. Under their new contract, former employees worked longer hours at a lower hourly wage than they had before the strike. Most of the strikers who were not rehired were blacklisted and found themselves unable to get jobs in the steel industry. The strike did nothing but hurt the reputation of labor unions throughout the country.
Although Carnegie privately wrote letters to Frick in support of Frick's handling of the affair, Carnegie publicly implied that Frick was responsible for the tragic events stemming from the strike and asked him to resign as chairman. In spite of his departure from the steel firm, Frick was rewarded handsomely when Carnegie bought Frick's stocks in the company for $15 million.
HOMESTEAD STRIKE, at the Carnegie Steel Company plant at Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892, was one of the most violent labor struggles in U.S. history. The company, owned by Andrew Carnegie and managed by Henry Clay Frick, was determined to break the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers union, which represented 750 of Homestead's 3,800 laborers. Frick closed the mill and locked the workers out on 1 July, after they rejected his proposed 22 percent wage cut. While Carnegie remained at his castle in Scotland, Frick hired three hundred Pinkerton Detective Agency guards to battle the workers. A gunfight erupted when the Pinkertons attempted to land at the Monongahela River docks, and altogether at least sixteen people were killed and more than sixty wounded. The fighting ended on 12 July, when Pennsylvania National Guard troops arrived. The lockout continued for almost five months, while steel production continued at Carnegie's other plants. The Amalgamated Association was ultimately driven from Homestead, forcing the remaining desperate workers to return to their jobs. In the following decade, the average workday rose from eight to twelve hours, and wages dropped an average of 25 percent. By 1903 all other steel plants in the country had defeated the union as well.
Krause, Paul. The Battle for Homestead, 1880–1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.
See alsoSteel Strikes .