Strike at Homestead Mill
"Come on, and you'll come over my carcass"
-union steel worker William Foy
When 300 Pinkerton Detectives came ashore at Andrew Carnegie's Homestead mill on July 6, 1892, they had no idea of the extreme violence with which locked-out steelworkers would greet them. A hail of stones, then bullets, ripped the air. Steelworker William Foy and the captain of the Pinkertons fell wounded.
What had begun as a simple disagreement over wages between the nations largest steelmaker and its largest craft union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, had taken a decidedly savage turn. Before the struggle ended, Amalgamated would be humbled, Carnegie's control of his labor force complete.
The union fought not just for better wages, but for a say in America's new industrial order. Despite Carnegie's public pro-labor stance, he refused to share control of his company. He and his partner, Henry Clay Frick, had brought unions to heel at their other mills, but Homestead remained untamed. In May, 1892, Carnegie traveled to Scotland, leaving Homestead in Frick's hands. Although Carnegie would later try to distance himself from the events at Homestead, his cables to Frick were clear: Do whatever it takes. Frick dug in for war.
On June 29, despite the union's willingness to negotiate, Frick closed the mill and locked out 3,800 men. Two days later, workers seized the mill and sealed off the town from strike-breakers. Frick summoned a private police force, the Pinkerton Detective Agency, to protect the non-union workers he planned to hire.
Virtually the entire town flooded to the mill to meet the Pinkertons, weapons in hand. "To be confronted with a gang of loafers and cut-throats from all over the country, coming there, as they thought, to take their jobs, why, they naturally wanted to go down and defend their homes and their property and their lives, with force, if necessary," recalled one worker.
For twelve hours, a fierce battle raged. Outgunned by the Pinkertons' Winchester rifles, Homestead's citizens scoured the town for weapons, pressing into service everything from ancient muzzle loaders to a 20-pound cannon. A local hardware merchant donated his entire stock of ammunition, which workers carried to the mill in wheelbarrows. As workers built barricades on shore, the Pinkertons cut rifle ports in the sides of their barges. Meanwhile, news of the battle had reached nearby Pittsburgh. By 6 am more than 5,000 curious spectators lined the riverbanks.
Just before 8 am, in the face of withering gunfire, the Pinkertons again tried to land. From across the Monongahela, workers blasted the cannon at the Pinkertons' barges, but scored few hits. Workers sent a burning raft and even a burning railroad car to destroy the barges, but both fell short of their targets. Dynamite and flaming oil slicks failed to scuttle the Pinkertons' craft.
The terrified Pinkertons cowered below deck. "The noise that they made on shore was awful, and it made us shake in our boots," one Pinkerton said. "We were penned in like rats and we went at the fighting like desperate wild men.... All of our men were under the beds and bunks, crying and trembling."
"It was a place of torment," said another. "Men were lying around wounded and bleeding and piteously begging for someone to give them a drink of water, but no one dared to get a drop, although water was all around us.... It is a wonder we did not all go crazy or commit suicide."
Four times the Pinkertons raised a white flag. Four times it was shot down by one of the three hundred sharpshooters positioned near Open Hearth Furnace no. 1. At 5 PM the workers finally accepted the Pinkertons' surrender. Three workers and seven Pinkertons were dead.
Horrified reporters watched as men, women, and children beat the surrendering Pinkertons brutally. "We were clubbed at every step," one Pinkerton recalled. "Sticks, stones, and dirt were thrown at us. The women pulled us down, spat in our faces, kicked us, and tore our clothing off while the crowd jeered and cheered." Held in the local jail for their safety, the Pinkertons rode the night train out of town.
The violence appalled Carnegie. "The Works are not worth one drop of human blood," he wrote. "I wish they had sunk." Yet he pressed onward. At Frick's request, the Pennsylvania governor sent 8,500 troops to Homestead. "It means just this," said one worker, "that the entire National Guard of the State of Pennsylvania has been called out to enable the Carnegie company to employ scab labor."
The workers welcomed the guardsmen with four brass bands, but failed to engender goodwill. "I don't want any brass-band business while I'm here," said the commanding officer. "I want you to distinctly understand that I am master of this situation." Within twenty minutes, the guardsmen had secured the mill. Homestead was placed under martial law, and by mid-August the mill was in full swing, employing 1700 scab workers.
Public sympathy for the union, eroded by the brutal treatment of the Pinkertons, declined further when anarchist Alexander Berkman, unconnected to the union, attempted to kill Frick. Though seriously wounded, Frick recovered and became even more determined to win: "I will fight this thing to the bitter end. I will never recognize the Union, never, never!" Meanwhile, the mill was being fortified.
Scabs had been assaulted in the street; a non union boarding house dynamited. Many local businesses refused to serve strikebreakers, who included Pennsylvania's first black steelworkers. Barracks, a barber shop and even a saloon were built in the mill yard. Yet even Fort Frick could not provide complete security. In November, tensions exploded into a massive riot against black strikebreakers. Two thousand white workers attacked Homestead's fifty black families. Gunfire was exchanged; many were severely wounded.
In mid-November, the union conceded. Three hundred locked-out men applied for work and were rehired. Many more were blacklisted. "Life worth living again!" Carnegie cabled Frick. "First happy morning since July." With the union crushed, Carnegie slashed wages, imposed twelve-hour workdays, and eliminated 500 jobs. "Oh that Homestead blunder," Carnegie wrote a friend. "But it's fading as all events do & we are at work selling steel one pound for a half penny."
Next: The Homestead Letters