With his quintessential rags-to-riches story, Andrew Carnegie embodied the American Dream. After poverty drove his family out of Scotland in 1848, Carnegie arrived in the United States as a penniless 12-year-old boy. With little formal education, he worked in a Pittsburgh cotton factory, earning $1.20 a week. After rising to become division superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Carnegie made shrewd investments in coal, iron and oil companies that made him a wealthy man by his early 30s.
While labor and management collided over the rules of the new industrial workplace in Gilded Age America, Carnegie sold himself as the champion of the working man. He was once one of them, after all. In truth, however, Carnegie and his workers were hardly equal partners inside his steel mills. And a bloody crackdown on workers at one of Carnegie’s major steel mills during the infamous 1892 Homestead Strike, revealed how far he would go to keep unions down.
Carnegie Was Pro-Union in Print
Carnegie opened his first steel mill in 1875, and his steel empire helped to build Gilded Age America as the country transformed from an agricultural society into an industrial one. In his writings, Carnegie expressed his approval of trade unions.
“The right of the working man to combine and to form trades-unions is no less sacred than the right of the manufacturer to enter into associations and conferences with his fellows, and it must be sooner or later conceded,” he wrote in Forum magazine in 1886.
“My experience has been that trades-unions upon the whole are beneficial both to labor and capital.”
Weeks later, after the Haymarket Riot, Carnegie expressed empathy for striking workers. “To expect that one dependent upon his daily wage for the necessaries of life will stand peaceably and see a new man employed in his stead is to expect much,” he wrote in Forum.
In appreciation for his pro-labor pronouncements, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers named a division in Carnegie’s honor and anointed him as an honorary member.
Carnegie Pushes to Get Rid of Unions at His Mills
In spite of his public pronouncements, Carnegie did not want unions in his steel mills. Carnegie claimed in his autobiography that he never employed strikebreakers, yet he did so repeatedly.
He followed a simple business philosophy: “Watch the costs, and the profits will take care of themselves.” Few costs were greater than the wages of his workforce, and he drove his employees to work longer hours without corresponding pay increases.
Just months after his declarations in Forum magazine, Carnegie demanded that laborers at his original steel mill—the Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock, Pennsylvania—return to 12-hour shifts and be paid on a sliding scale that tied their wages directly to the price of steel. Workers walked off the job in protest until they were forced to give in to Carnegie’s demands after five months without a paycheck.
The Homestead Strike
After Carnegie purchased the massive Homestead steel works in 1883, he spent millions transforming it to become the heart of his steel empire. When he purchased the steel mill, it was already home to lodges of the powerful Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, and Carnegie ultimately took steps to eliminate the union from the Homestead plant.
The man who wrote of his support of unions now put his opposition in writing on handbills distributed to Homestead employees in April 1892: “As the vast majority of our employees are Non-Union, the Firm has decided that the minority must give place to the majority. These works therefore, will be necessarily Non-Union after the expiration of the present agreement.”
With Homestead’s labor contract set to expire in the summer of 1892, Carnegie sailed across the ocean for his annual vacation in Scotland and left the negotiations in the hands of his general manager Henry Clay Frick, who was notorious for using hardball tactics to bust unions in the coal mines. “We all approve of anything you do, not stopping short of approval of a contest,” Carnegie wrote to Frick. “We are with you to the end.”
Frick girded for battle with the union to the point of installing three miles of fencing, topped with barbed wire and watch towers, around the mill. After the union refused management’s demands, Frick locked out the workers and hired Pinkerton Detective agents to allow non-union workers into the plant. However, when two barges carrying 300 Pinkerton agents docked at Homestead on July 6, 1892, gunfire erupted and a pitched battle ensued that left at least three Pinkertons and seven union members dead.
Days later, the state militia arrived and secured the mill, which was up and running within a week with non-union labor. With winter approaching, striking union members could hold out no longer and capitulated in November 1892, returning to their jobs with as much as a 60 percent pay cut.
“Our victory is now complete and most gratifying. Do not think we will ever have serious labor trouble again,” Frick wired Carnegie after the end of the Homestead Strike. “We had to teach our employees a lesson and we have taught them one they will never forget.” “Life worth living again,” Carnegie messaged back to Frick.
Homestead Strike Stains Carnegie’s Reputation
With his pro-worker reputation tattered by the blood spilled in Homestead, Carnegie tried to distance himself from Frick’s decision-making although he was in constant contact during the entire strike. “Never employ one of those rioters. Let grass grow over the works,” Carnegie had telegraphed Frick the day after the deadly battle at Homestead.
Carnegie was also criticized for going to Scotland in the midst of the negotiations. “Say what you will of Frick, he is a brave man,” editorialized the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Say what you will of Carnegie, he is a coward.”
The Carnegie Steel Company, though, continued to crack down on organized labor. When 40 men were found trying to revive the union at Homestead in 1899, all were fired. Not until the 1930s, with the protection of New Deal legislation, did unions return to the steel industry.
In 1901, he sold the Carnegie Steel Company to banker J.P. Morgan for $480 million and became the richest man in the world. Before his death in 1919, Carnegie gave away more than $350 million in philanthropic ventures, including the establishment of more than 2,500 public libraries around the world.
Not everyone could benefit from Carnegie’s charity, though. As one steel worker quipped, “After working 12 hours, how can a man go to a library?”