Sunday, January 10, 2016

American History 101: The Homestead Strike of 1892

Throughout the history of the United States the relationship between labor and management has been one of the most important and contentious relationships at the same time.  The upper level of corporate management has to keep pushing forward, creating the next opportunity and squeezing every ounce of productivity out of their workforce.  At the same time, the worker has to be treated fairly, paid a reasonable wage and able to feel safe in their working environment.  The juxtaposition of these two forces hit a major pothole in their journey in 1892 when the management of Carnegie Steel and the workers at the Homestead plant could not come to an labor agreement that both sides were happy with.  The result was a conflict that not only damaged relations between labor and management of Carnegie Steel, but had a negative lasting impact on the power that labor unions would have throughout the steel industry and the rest of the country for decades to come.

Homestead Steel Mill, Circa 1890

The Homestead Strike of 1892 was prefaced by three previous strikes at the Homestead plant, and the end of their current collective bargaining agreement.  In the previous two strikes that had occurred at Homestead, the workers moved towards and were eventually represented by Amalgamated Association of Steel Workers.  At the end of the previous strike, Carnegie Steel had acquiesced control over the day-to-day activities on the floor of the plant to the workers.  However, as the time ticked on towards the end of the collective bargaining agreement, Carnegie Steel found itself under more pressure to produce enough to steel to meet the demand.  In order to meet that demand Carnegie began to run its open hearth steel production system twenty four hours a day.

Andrew Carnegie
Andrew Carnegie and his plant manager Henry Frick knew that they did not want to relive the strike of 1889 that produced their current collective bargaining agreement.  Carnegie and Frick also knew that they needed to regain control of the plant in order to continue to be profitable enough to keep their doors open.  In spite of the growing popularity of steel, Carnegie’s steel was a premium product, and there was some concern as to how long the Navy and other companies would pay the premium price for it.  The board of directors at Carnegie Steel concerns manifested in a push to increase profitability on each run of steel, and they could feel the breath of financiers such as J.P Morgan breathing down their necks.  One of the first things that Carnegie did was order Frick to have the plant running non-stop and increase production in order to build up a reserve of steel, just in case a strike occurred.  With the long hours that the workers had previously been putting in, this represented a marked safety issue for the workers.  There had already been several accidents, and in early 1892 four workers died on the factory floor in workplace related accidents as a result of the increased output schedule. 

There were a number of moves that Carnegie and Frick made as they prepared to negotiate, and even during negotiations, but none more eye-raising then Andrew Carnegie’s decision to take a trip to Scotland at this time.  While he played golf he left negotiations with the workers to Henry Frick.  Frick was hired because of his hard-nosed approach to workplace management, and to give Carnegie’s company a more cut-throat approach to doing business that had been very successful during the 1880’s.  However, the newspapers and popular opinion at the time was that Carnegie was “a coward.  And gods and men hate cowards.”  Whether or not it was accurate, Carnegie used his absence from the negotiations as a way to distance himself from the disaster that was created by Frick’s mishandling of the situation.

Henry Frick began to negotiate with the union representatives in February of 1892.  Frick’s attitude towards the negotiations was a mirror of Carnegie’s attitude to drive the union out of the plant.  They knew that the union was not going to sit quietly and allow the working conditions and pay scale to remain the same now that Carnegie Steel’s fires never went dark.  Frick had permission from Carnegie to cut off negotiations with the union at any time, but Frick continued to negotiate with the union until the end of April.  At the end of April in 1892, Frick grew tired of the back and forth and told the union that if a contract agreement had not been reached by the end of May that Carnegie Steel would no longer recognize the validity of the union.  At that time Frick offered a pay raise and said, “We do not care whether a man belongs to a union or not, nor do we wish to interfere.  He may belong to as many unions or organizations as he chooses, but we think our employees at Homestead Steel Works would fare much better working under the system in vogue.”  Today this may seem like a harsh move by Frick, however at the time Carnegie and other moguls of industry did not recognize the workers right to be represented.  They still felt the management had all the power in deciding working conditions and wages, in spite of Carnegie’s public support for unions. 

With no deal having been struck, Frick ceased negotiations with the union on June 1st.  By the end of June, 1892 Carnegie Steel officially locked the workers out of the steel mill, preventing them from working all together.  This was Frick’s first move in creating what would be seen as an aggressive denial of the right to work, and pouring gas on the smoldering fire of the angry workers.  When Amalgamated met on the evening of June 30, 1892, the union officially decided to go on strike.  And with their decision to go on strike, they also decided that they would create a blockage around the plant to prevent strikebreakers from running the plant until the strike and lockout had been settled.  Frick knew he could not let this stand, he knew that he has to re-open the plant.  Frick attempted to hire replacement workers, but they were turned away at the gate by the striking workers.  Frick called in the local sheriff’s department to assist the newly hired workers, but the striking workers would not move and made it clear that they would never allow non-union workers to work at the plant.  The events at Homestead began to get national attention, and other steel mills took notice.

After the local sheriff’s attempts to disband the workers Frick made a fateful decision.  Without the less aggressive counsel of Andrew Carnegie, Frick decided to fight a campfire with a blow torch and contracted the Pinkerton Detective Agency to drive the striking workers from the property.

Burning of the Pinkerton Barge

The series of events that followed stand today as one of the worst confrontations in a labor dispute in American history.  Over three hundred Pinkertons arrived just outside Pittsburgh around 10:30 p.m. on July 5.  And at around 4:00 a.m. on July 6, 1892, three hundred armed Pinkertons attempted to make landfall from the river with the replacement workers in-tow.  While there are a conflicting stories as to who fired first, rifles began to erupt from both sides and blood began to spill as Pinkertons began firing directly into the crowd of workers.  The townspeople came to help defend the workers, and a canon was set up to try and sink the Pinkerton’s barge.  The battle went on for several hours before the workers attempted to burn the bridge, and blow it up with dynamite.  In spite of these attempts failing, it was becoming increasingly clear as the day wore on that the Pinkerton force was not making any headway.  As daylight shone over the plant the union president William Weahe appealed to the sheriff to force Frick to the bargaining table to stop the violence.  Frick refused the meeting because he was hoping that Governor Pattison would call out the state militia to help the Pinkertons.  By the time the state militia came, the Pinkertons had already surrendered.  And the workers met with the militia, unarmed, on July 12, 1892.  After nine died, and dozens of others were injured, the militia was able to remove the workers, and Frick quickly staffed the plant with non-union employees.

While the strike was harmful for Carnegie Steel in terms of its bottom line, the damage done to labor unions and the workers was devastating.  During the strike, other factories were watching and began to shun the unions in their own organizations.  The factories in Pennsylvania and Ohio refused to deal with workers who were associated with the Amalgamated Association.  By 1899 Frick was able to rid the plant of every worker associated with Amalgamated, and it signaled the beginning of the end of Amalgamated and other labor unions.  By the end of 1900, not one steel mill employed union workers in Pennsylvania.  And in spite of the efforts at Homestead to create a safe working environment and fair wages for workers who were being abused by a system that undoubtedly favored big business, the power of unions was nullified completely until the unions all disbanded and reorganized at United Steelworks in 1942.  In essence, the Homestead Strike of 1892 destroyed the workers right and ability to negotiate fair wages and working conditions as a group until after World War II.

Bruce holds a degree in Computer Science from Temple University, a Graduate Certificate in Biblical History from Liberty University and is working towards a Masters Degree in American History at American Public University.  He has worked in educational and technology for over 18 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Bruce is the author of five books: Sands of TimeTowering Pines Volume One:Room 509The Star of ChristmasPhiladelphia Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel and The Insider's Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel

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