Homestead is a small town eight miles outside of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, located on the bank of the Monongahela River. In 1881, Andrew Carnegie built his principal steel mill in the town of Homestead. The Carnegie Steel Mill had employed over 4,000 out of the town's 12,000 residents (Burgoyne). Carnegie’s mill was the lifeline of this small town. Every individual in the town was affected by the mill in some way. Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish born businessman, built his fortune from nothing. At its peak, Carnegie’s enterprise was worth $14 billion and controlled two-thirds of the steel production across the nation (Brinkley 106) . Although he was wealthy, Carnegie kept a good reputation among all his employees as a respected, kind man. On the contrary, Henry Clay Frick, Carnegie’s appointed chairman, had no compassion for his workers. He was a ruthless man who despised worker’s unions and anything associated with them. Andrew Carnegie left for vacation in 1892, trusting Henry Frick with full authority of the Homestead mill and the employees there. Upon his departure, Carnegie could never have anticipated the upcoming events that would take place in Homestead.
The Homestead workers were members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AAISW). The union was made up of over 24,000 members and was one of the largest iron and steel unions in the United States. In 1892 the contract between the AAISW and the Carnegie Steel Company expired (White). At the same time the price of steel in the early 1890s was falling. Frick, worried about the price cuts, decided to use the expiring contract to cut wages and take power away from the employees. The disputes between the Union and Carnegie’s company led up to what came to be known as the Homestead Strike of 1892.
As of June 29, 1892, negotiations were making no progress. The lack of improvements in the strike and the declining state of the steel market led Frick to lock out the mill’s 4,000 workers. This way Frick could bring in strike breakers to keep production moving. Frick built a twelve-foot fence around the entire perimeter. The Fence, known as “Fort Frick”, stretched for over three miles, and was guarded by Deputy Sheriffs. The workers decided to take the mill for themselves and prohibit new non-union men, which were called in from surrounding cities, from entering the property. They ordered the sheriffs out of town using their superior numbers to intimidate them.. Meanwhile, Frick hired three hundred Pinkerton Detectives to aid in the retaking of the Homestead plant. Pinkertons, as they were called, were hired guards used to break strikes. These men were notoriously violent in their dealings with strikers. At midnight of July 5, 1892, the Pinkerton army was spotted coming down the Monongahela River on barges armed with Winchester rifles. The workers then warned the entire town of the coming attackers. The town of Homestead came to help guard the mill. Every man, women, and child gathered at the mill to confront the arriving Pinkerton force. The residents of Homestead urged the Pinkertons not to get off the barges, but they did not listen.
On July 6, 1892, the first gunshots were exchanged between the Pinkerton Detectives and the people of Homestead. There is no record of who fired the first shot but the result was a massive firefight. The following fourteen hours of battle were brutal. The strikers went as far as rolling fire laden freight trains onto the barges. The heavily outnumbered Pinkerton Detectives were forced to surrender. Therefore, they were forced to march through a gauntlet of townspeople and were beaten on their way out. Hugh O'Donnell, the leader of the strikers remembers the march, "I must confess that during the march from the barges to the rink the Pinkerton men were shamefully abused by the crowd, but we took care of them that night and saw that they got out of town safely" (“The Situation at Homestead”). On July 6 at 5:00 p.m. a total of nine workers and seven Pinkerton Detectives were announced dead with many others wounded. The workers thought they had won the battle and kept the mill in their control, but the worker’s celebration did not last long. Six days later the Governor of Pennsylvania ordered the National Guard to take control of the situation in Homestead. Upon arrival, the National Guard took over the Carnegie Steel mill with no resistance from the workers.
Following the National Guard occupation, the union still insisted on striking. This lasted until winter when exceptionally harsh weather, lack of money, and no progress in negotiations forced the workers to end the strike. Back on the job site they were required to work longer days, receive less pay, and work in the same unacceptable conditions. The union crumbled after losing the strike. Many of the members wondered what good a union was if it could not solve a strike? Along with the union, the Pinkerton Detective Agency never recovered from the loss of face they received after being run out of town. The agency was slowly pushed into oblivion after the event. On the business side of the strike, there were many repercussions. Andrew Carnegie received most of the blame for the event. Upon his return, he was very disappointed in Henry Clay Frick’s decisions. Carnegie showed his disappointment when he stated, "I have tried my best to be your friend again. It is simple ridiculous my dear Mr. Frick. . ." (Livesay 164). Carnegie faced a difficult decision of punishing Frick. To save his reputation, Frick begged for demotion instead of being let go. Being a compassionate man, Carnegie appointed him chairman of the board, an honorary position with no real power. Coupled with the demotion, Frick’s shares in the company were reduced from eleven percent to six percent, a substantial amount of money. Along with the job, Frick almost lost his life. Following the National Guard occupation assassin Alexander Berkman came to end the strike by killing Frick. Although Frick was shot, the attempt was unsuccessful due to the faulty working of the gun used by Berkman. Frick returned to work the next week. For his attempted murder, Berkman was to sentenced 14 years in the Pennsylvania Western Penitentiary. Many of the strikers were accused of murder but none of them were convicted.
The Homestead strike was the beginning in a line of strikes to come over the next century. The effect it left on unionism remained for many years. The battle for Homestead, as it is now known as, went down in the history books as one of the most violent strikes in U.S. history. Many organizations never recovered from the unpleasant reputation that they gained from this event. The Battle at Homestead will be remembered as an occasion where human greed and civil rights collided and neither one came out on top.
Brinkley, Allan. The Unfinished Nation. 4th ed. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2004.
Burgoyne, Arthur G. “Homestead: A Complete History of the Struggle of July, 1892.” The Strike of Homestead. Patrick J. Hall. Ohio State U. http://www.history.ohio-state.edu/projects/homesteadstrike1892/homestead1892/homesteadd1892.htm (18 Feb. 2004).
Fitch, John A. “Unionism and the Union Movement.” Patrick J. Hall. Ohio State U. http://www.history.ohio-state.edu/projects/PittsburghSurvey/SteelWorkers/unions.htm (4 Feb. 2004).
Goldner, Cheri. “The Homestead Strike 1892.” The Homestead Strike. 1997. American Cultures Studies “Computing for ACS” http://www.bgsu.edu/departments/acs/1890s/carnegie/strike.html (22 Jan. 2004).
Krause, Paul. The Battle for Homestead of 1892. U. of Pitt: Pittsburgh, 1992.
Livesay, Harold. C. Andrew Carnegie and the Rise to Big Business. 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 2000.
Solomon, Martha. Emma Goldman. Twanyne: Boston, 1987.
‘The Homestead Strike” The American Experience. 1999. PBS Online WGBH. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/carnegie/peopleevents/pande04.html (22 Jan. 2004).
“The Situation at Homestead.” 23 July 1892. Ohio State Dept. of History. http://www.history.ohio-state.edu/projects/homesteadstrike1892/historyofsevendays/situationathomestead.htm (22 Jan. 2004)
White, Joe. “The Homestead Strike of 1892.” Congress of Industrial Organizations: Constitutional Convention. 14 May 02. http://www.pittsburghaflcio.org/homested.html (25 Jan. 04).
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