Strike at Homestead Mill: The Hated Men in Blue
Homestead mayor "Honest" John McLuckie, like all labor leaders, despised the Pinkertons: "Our people as a general thing think they are a horde of cut-throats, thieves, and murderers and are in the employ of unscrupulous capital for the oppression of honest labor." Hated by laborers nationwide, the Pinkertons had long been used to bust strikes-often by busting heads.
In the late nineteenth century, labor disputes often erupted into violent riots, and a cottage industry sprang up to serve the paramilitary needs of the modern industrialist. Local sheriffs were usually too poorly equipped or too sympathetic to labor to put down strikes. The Pinkerton Detective Agency, on the other hand, staked its reputation on crushing labor actions. Between 1866 and 1892, Pinkertons participated in seventy labor disputes and opposed over 125,000 strikers.
Even before the Homestead strike, Carnegie and Frick had employed the Pinkertons. Frick used the agency twice in his coal fields: in 1884 to protect Hungarians and Slavs whom he had brought in as strikebreakers; and in 1891 to protect Italian strikebreakers, brought in against the then-striking Hungarians and Slavs. Carnegie used Pinkertons to protect strike breakers in 1887 and hired them twice in 1889 when strikes seemed imminent, facts he later conveniently forgot.
The Pinkerton Detective Agency was founded in 1850 by a young Scottish immigrant, Allan Pinkerton. Curiously, Pinkerton had been a Chartist in Scotland like Carnegie's father, agitating for the rights of the British working class. His detectives gained national attention by fighting the "Molly Maguires," a secret society of Irish coal miners credited with massive violence against coal companies in eastern Pennsylvania. Pinkertons infiltrated the organization and had many of the Mollies arrested and some hanged.
Critics alleged that the Pinkertons had planted evidence during their investigation of the Mollies and had thrown the bomb that sparked Chicago's Haymarket Riot of 1886 in order to discredit unions. Whether or not these rumors were true, it was certainly the case that Pinkerton agents were not above stirring up a little trouble where it did not previously exist-just to drum up business.
In most cases, however, the Pinkertons' conduct was strictly within the law, if not entirely popular. If strikers threatened a company's property rights, that company was expected to strike back, even violently, in order to restore "law and order." Ironically, the detectives, like most workers, were immigrants working for a wage; when the workers at Homestead fought the Pinkertons, they were really fighting themselves. "The person who employed that force," said Mayor McLuckie, "was safely placed away by the money that he has wrung from the sweat of the men employed in that mill."
Next: A New Judas Iscariot