The Strike at Homestead Mill
"Come on, and you'll come over my carcass."
- union steel worker William Foy
One of the most difficult episodes of Andrew Carnegie's life -- and one that revealed the steel magnate's conflicting beliefs regarding the rights of labor -- was the bitter conflict in 1892 at his steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Carnegie's involvement in the union-breaking action forever tarnished his reputation as a benevolent employer and a champion of labor.
The conflict at Homestead arose at a time when the fast-changing American economy had stumbled and conflicts between labor and management had flared up all over the country. In 1892, labor declared a general strike in New Orleans. Coal miners struck in Tennessee, as did railroad switchmen in Buffalo, New York and copper miners in Idaho.
Carnegie's mighty steel industry was not immune to the downturn. In 1890, the price of rolled-steel products started to decline, dropping from $35 a gross ton to $22 early in 1892. In the face of depressed steel prices, Henry c. Frick, general manager of the Homestead plant that Carnegie largely owned, was determined to cut wages and break the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, the nation’s largest steelmaker and its largest craft union.
Despite Carnegie's public pro-labor stance, Carnegie supported Frick's plans behind the scenes. In the spring of 1892, Carnegie had Frick produce as much armor plate as possible before the union's contract expired at the end of June. If the union failed to accept Frick's terms, Carnegie instructed him to shut down the plant and wait until the workers buckled. "We... approve of anything you do," Carnegie wrote from England in words he would later come to regret. "We are with you to the end."
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.
With Carnegie's carte blanche support, Frick moved to slash wages. Plant workers responded by hanging Frick in effigy. The union fought not just for better wages, but also for a say in America's new industrial order. Though Carnegie and Frick had brought unions to heel at their other mills, Homestead remained untamed.
"Workers believed because they had worked in the mill, they had mixed their labor with the property in the mill," explains historian Paul Krause. "They believed that in some way the property had become theirs. Not that it wasn't Andrew Carnegie's, not that they were the sole proprietors of the mill, but that they had an entitlement in the mill. And I think in a fundamental way the conflict at Homestead in 1892 was about these two conflicting views of property."
On June 25th, Frick announced he would no longer negotiate with the union; now he would only deal with workers individually. Leaders of Amalgamated were willing to concede on almost every level -- except on the dissolution of their union. On June 29, despite the union's willingness to negotiate, Frick closed down his open hearth and armor-plate mills, locking out 3,800 men. Two days later, workers seized the mill and sealed off the town from strike-breakers.
Workers tried to reach Carnegie, who had strongly defended labor's right to unionize. But, on his annual lengthy vacation to a remote Scottish castle on Loch Rannock, he proved inaccessible to all -- including the press and to Homestead's workers -- except for Frick.
"This is your chance to re-organize the whole affair," Carnegie wrote his manager. "Far too many men required by Amalgamated rules." Carnegie believed workers would agree to relinquish their union to hold on to their jobs.
It was a severe miscalculation. Although only 750 of the 3,800 workers at Homestead belonged to the union, 3,000 of them met and voted overwhelmingly to strike. Frick responded by building a fence three miles long and 12 feet high around the steelworks plant, adding peepholes for rifles and topping it with barbed wire. Workers named the fence "Fort Frick."
Deputy sheriffs were sworn in to guard the property, but the workers ordered them out of town. Workers then took to guarding the plant that Frick had closed to keep them out. This action signified a very different attitude that labor and management shared toward the plant.
To protect the non-union workers he planned to hire, Frick turned to the enforcers he had employed previously: the Pinkerton Detective Agency's private police force, often used by industrialists of the era.
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 the locked-out steelworkers would greet them. Tugboats pulled barges carrying hundreds of Pinkerton detectives armed with Winchester rifles up the Monongahela River. Workers stationed along the river spotted the private army. A Pittsburgh journalist wrote that at about 3am a "horseman riding at breakneck speed dashed into the streets of Homestead giving the alarm as he sped along."
Thousands of strikers and their sympathizers rose from their sleep and 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.
When the private armies of business arrived, the crowd warned the Pinkertons not to step off the barge. But they did. A hail of stones, then bullets, ripped the air. Steelworker William Foy and the captain of the Pinkertons fell wounded. No one knows which side shot first, but under a barrage of fire, the Pinkertons retreated back to their barges.
For 12 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. Strikers rolled a flaming freight train car at the barges. They tossed dynamite to sink the boats and pumped oil into the river and tried to set it on fire. 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 6am more than 5,000 curious spectators lined the riverbanks.
Just before 8am, 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 300 sharpshooters positioned near Open Hearth Furnace No. One. At 5pm the workers finally accepted the Pinkertons' surrender. Nearly a dozen people were dead. The workers declared victory in the bloody battle, but it was a short-lived celebration.
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."
Armed with the latest in rifles and Gatling guns, the state militia took over the plant. Strikebreakers who arrived on locked trains, often unaware of their destination or the presence of a strike, took over the steel mills.
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 20 minutes, the guardsmen had secured the mill. Homestead was placed under martial law, and by mid-August the mill was in full swing, employing 1,700 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 barbershop 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 50 black families. Gunfire was exchanged; many were severely wounded.
In mid-November, the union conceded. Authorities charged the strike leaders with murder and 160 other strikers with lesser crimes. The workers' entire Strike Committee also was arrested for treason. However, sympathetic juries would convict none of the men.
All the strike leaders and many more were blacklisted and the Carnegie Company successfully swept unions out of Homestead, reducing it to a negligible factor in the steel mills throughout the Pittsburgh area. Three hundred locked-out men applied for work and were rehired.
"Life worth living again!" Carnegie cabled Frick. "First happy morning since July." With the union crushed, Carnegie slashed wages, imposed 12-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."
Despite his triumph over the union, Carnegie found the upheaval and its aftermath a devastating experience. When British statesman William E. Gladstone wrote him a sympathetic note, Carnegie replied:
This is the trial of my life (death's hand excepted). Such a foolish step -- contrary to my ideals, repugnant to every feeling of my nature. Our firm offered all it could offer, even generous terms. Our other men had gratefully accepted them. They went as far as I could have wished, but the false step was made in trying to run the Homestead Works with new men. It is a test to which workingmen should not be subjected. It is expecting too much of poor men to stand by and see their work taken by others… The pain I suffer increases daily. The Works are not worth one drop of human blood. I wish they had sunk.
Carnegie would come back to Homestead six years later to dedicate a building that would house a library, a concert hall, a swimming pool, bowling alleys, and a gymnasium. However, the man who saw himself as a progressive businessman would always carry pain regarding the incident. "Nothing… in all my life, before or since, wounded me so deeply," he wrote in his autobiography. "No pangs remain of any wound received in my business career save that of Homestead."
The Homestead Letters
Soon after the bloody battle on July 6, Carnegie told the New York Herald that the news of the disaster "grieved me more than I can tell you. It came on me like a thunderbolt in a clear sky." In fact, Carnegie had supported Frick's preparations for battle and closely monitored the lockout, as demonstrated by his correspondence that year:
Letter to Frick
"One thing we are all sure of: No contest will be entered in that will fail. It will be harder this time at Homestead.... On the other hand, your reputation will shorten it, so that I really do not believe it will be much of a struggle. We all approve of anything you do, not stopping short of approval of a contest. We are with you to the end."
Telegram to Frick
"Of course, you will be asked to confer, and I know you will decline all conferences, as you have taken your stand and have nothing more to say.... Of course you will win, and win easier than you suppose, owing to the present condition of the market."
The battle at Homestead
Telegram to Frick
"Cable received. All anxiety gone since you stand firm. Never employ one of these rioters. Let grass grow over works. Must not fail now. You will win easily next trial."
Letter to cousin
"Matters at home bad -- such a fiasco trying to send guards by Boat and then leaving space between River & fences for the men to get opposite landing and fire. Still we must keep quiet & do all we can to support Frick & those at Seat of War. I have been besieged by interviewing Cables from N York but have not said a word. Silence is best. We shall win, of course, but may have to shut down for months."
Telegram from Frick at end of lockout
Telegram from Frick
"Strike officially declared off yesterday. Our victory is now complete and most gratifying. Do not think we will ever have any serious labor trouble again.... Let the Amalgamated still exist and hold full sway at other people's mills. That is no concern of ours."
Telegram to Frick from Italy
"Life is worth living again -- Cables received -- first happy morning since July -- surprising how pretty Italia -- congratulate all around -- improve works -- go ahead -- clear track -- tariff not in it -- shake."
Letter to Frick from Rome
"I am well and able to take an interest in the wonders we see.… Shall see you all early after the New Year. Think I'm about ten years older than when with you last. Europe has rung with Homestead, Homestead, until we are sick of the name, but it is all over now-So once again Happy New Year to all. I wish someone would write me about your good self. I cannot believe you can be well. Ever your Pard, A.C."
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 19th 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 70 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 strikebreakers 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."
A New Judas Iscariot
In the wake of Homestead, Carnegie was roundly criticized by the public, the pulpit, and the press. Just six years earlier, he had been congratulated for his unusual position as an industrialist championing the labor cause. Now he had locked out his workers and imported strikebreakers. The word "hypocrite" was on everyone's lips.
"One would naturally suppose that if he had a grain of manhood, not to say courage, in his composition, he would at least have been willing to face the consequences of his inconsistency," railed the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "But what does Carnegie do? Runs off to Scotland out of harm's way to await the issue of the battle he was too pusillanimous to share. A single word from him might have saved the bloodshed -- but the word was never spoken.... Say what you will of Frick, he is a brave man. Say what you will of Carnegie, he is a coward. And gods and men hate cowards."
"While the slaughter was going on," joined the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "Partner Carnegie was at his castle in Scotland enjoying his more than princely income and posing as a benefactor of the working class and a general friend to humanity." Senator Voorhees of Indiana added, "Men like Carnegie and his class are so bloated, arrogant, and plethoric of wealth... that they think they can employ a private army themselves to ride over American citizens."
Even Carnegie's Radical labor friends in Britain now snubbed him. The Glasgow Trades Council formally declared Carnegie "a new Judas Iscariot," and he was nearly kicked out of Britain's National Liberal Club. At home, the conservative Cleveland Chamber of Commerce banned Carnegie from honorary membership. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh workers loudly protested the city's acceptance of a Carnegie library and art museum.
Frick, too, came under fire. During a memorial service at Homestead, the Rev. J.J. McIlyar called Frick "the only one of them who had little enough blood in him to carry out this awful work.... There is no more sensibility in that man than in a toad."
While very few supported Frick's decision to hire Pinkertons, fewer still defended the workers' brutal treatment of the detectives. "The conduct of the Homestead workmen was utterly unjustifiable legally, and atrocious morally," The Nation intoned. The House committee investigating Homestead agreed. "If the washerwoman of [labor leader John McLuckie] refuses to wash for what he is willing to pay, that is her right," the committee said, "but she has no right to stand in front of his door and fling stones at another woman who comes to take her place and do the work under the new scale of wages which he is willing to pay."
Ultimately, Homestead turned popular sentiment against "Pinkertonism." In the seven years after the Homestead battle, 26 states passed laws against the hiring of outside guards in labor disputes.
"It's easy to say that Carnegie was a hypocrite," states historian Joseph Frazier Wall. "And there is an element of hypocrisy clearly in between what he said and what was done. But it's a little too easy to simply dismiss the whole incident on Carnegie's part as an act of hypocrisy. There is this curious reason as to why Carnegie felt it necessary to even enunciate the rights of labor. Frick was the norm, not Carnegie, in management's relationship with labor at that time. And, one can only answer that, once again, it's being torn between wanting to pose as a great democrat and liberal and at the same time wanting to make sure Carnegie Steel came out on top."