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The Homestead Strike

In 1892 the Carnegie Steel Corporation, then the world's largest manufacturing firm, was pitted against the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, then one of the largest unions in the country. The strike happened at the Carnegie mill located in Homestead, Pennsylvania, about seven miles east of Pittsburgh.

Just a few years earlier the union and the mill had agreed to a contract in which workers would be paid according to a sliding scale wages system, in which wages were partially determined by market prices. With the price of rolled-steel products on a steady decline, Andrew Carnegie needed to reduce labor costs in order to maintain his plant's profit margin. And, with the contract set to expire on June 30, 1892, Carnegie thought he could get workers to agree to a wage cut in order to keep their jobs. He was seriously mistaken, however.

After preliminary contract negotiations failed to result in worker concessions, Carnegie decided it was time to take a European vacation. Although he had once defended labor's right to unionize, he decided to leave contract negotiations in the hands of his plant manager, Henry Clay Frick, a staunch anti-unionist.

Frick gave the union an ultimatum -- if the union refused to accept a wage cut he would shut down the mill. Workers responded by hanging Frick in effigy, and Frick in turn responded by closing down the open hearth and armor-plate mills, and locking out 1,100 workers. On June 25, he announced that he would no longer negotiate with the union, only with individual workers. On June 29, about 3,000 workers voted overwhelmingly to strike, even though only 750 of the plant's workers actually belonged to the union.

With negotiations broken off and the workers on strike, Frick had a tall fence erected around the mill, complete with guard towers and gun ports. Deputy sheriffs were sworn in to guard the property, but were driven off by workers, who then took to guarding the closed plant themselves.

Frick, of course, had no intention of keeping the plant closed for long. He called in the Pinkerton Detective Agency to guard the plant, and to act as protection for the outside workers Frick planned to bring in. In the early morning hours of July 6, two tugboats approached Homestead via the Monongahela River, towing two barges loaded with about 300 Pinkerton agents. By the time the barges reached Homestead, however, the workers were waiting on the riverbank. Someone, no one knows who, fired a shot, and then absolute mayhem broke out. Workers fired on the barges with cannon and small arms, threw sticks of dynamite, and even poured oil on the river and then lit it in order to drive the Pinkertons away. The Pinkertons naturally responded by returning fire. After fourteen hours at least nine workers and three Pinkertons were dead.

Homestead workers 'greet' the Pinkertons
Homestead workers 'greet' the Pinkertons

Outnumbered and outgunned, the Pinkertons were finally forced to surrender. They were then forced to run the gauntlet, during which ordeal they were literally pummeled by the community. By the time the Pinkertons were able to board a train and get out of town, about half of them had been injured, many seriously.

Hoping to restore order to Homestead, Pennsylvania Governor Robert E. Pattison mobilized the National Guard, which entered the town on July 12. A few days later Frick began hiring replacement workers and the plant resumed limited operations.

Despite pleas from Congress, the Republican National Committee, and other unions, Frick continued his refusal to negotiate with the strikers, who by now were beginning to feel the effects of being unemployed. In addition, many union leaders and strikers had been arrested and indicted for murder as a result of the attacks on the Pinkertons. By late October most of the strikers had gone back to work. In early November, the remaining strikers voted by a narrow majority to end the strike, and the crisis was ended.

By 1893 most of the strikers had been rehired, but all of the strike leaders found themselves blacklisted. Meanwhile, juries in Pittsburgh eventually acquitted all strikers of all murder charges, and all other charges were dropped.

The American Experience: Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie

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This page was last updated on June 28, 2018.