In July 1892, a dispute between Carnegie Steel and the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers exploded into violence at a steel plant owned by Andrew Carnegie in Homestead, Pennsylvania. In what would be one of the deadliest labor-management conflicts in the nation’s history, some 12 people were killed when striking workers attacked 300 Pinkerton detectives hired by the plant’s management as security guards.

Carnegie Steel vs. Steelworkers’ Union

By 1892, Andrew Carnegie had worked his way up from his poor childhood in Scotland to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful industrialists in the United States. He was the majority shareholder of Carnegie Steel, the nation’s largest steelmaker, as well as a leading philanthropist who voiced public support for labor causes, including the right of workers to unionize.

But when Henry Clay Frick, chairman and chief executive of Carnegie Steel, wanted to cut workers’ wages at the plant in Homestead, located near Pittsburgh on the south bank of the Monongahela River, Carnegie supported Frick’s efforts despite his public pro-labor stance. Homestead was one of the most important of Carnegie Steel’s vast network of iron, steel and coke works, and Frick’s efforts would pit him against the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, one of the largest unions in the country.

Beginning of the Homestead strike

With the union’s three-year contract with Carnegie coming to an end in June 1892, Frick announced pay cuts for hundreds of Homestead workers. After refusing to negotiate with the union, he shuttered the Homestead steel mill on June 29, locking 3,800 workers out. Only around 725 of those workers belonged to Amalgamated, but all of them voted to strike, surprising Frick, who had assumed only union members would strike.

After Frick had a high fence topped with barbed wire built around the mill itself, leading workers to dub it “Fort Frick,” armed workers surrounded the plant and sealed off the town. In order to protect the strikebreakers he planned to hire, Frick followed the example of many industrialists battling unions and called in the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Pinkerton detectives had become known for infiltrating unions and breaking strikes nationwide, including at another Carnegie plant a few years earlier.

Homestead Strike photograph

Stereoscopic photograph showing striking steel workers on a hill above the Carnegie Steel Company's Homestead Steel Works in Homestead, Pennsylvania, July 1892.

Arrival of the Pinkertons and Outbreak of Violence

Early on the morning of July 6, around 300 Pinkerton detectives arrived on barges pulled by tugboats along the Monongahela River. When word arrived of their approach, thousands of striking workers and their families rushed to the river to keep them from coming ashore at Homestead. The two groups exchanged gunfire, with the Pinkertons armed with Winchester repeating rifles and the workers on higher ground firing down on the barges with ancient guns and even an old cannon.

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After the Pinkertons repeatedly raised a white flag, the workers finally accepted their surrender by early evening. Nearly a dozen people had been killed by then, and a crowd of men, women and children brutally beat the Pinkertons who came ashore after their surrender. At Frick’s request, the governor of Pennsylvania soon sent 8,500 National Guard forces to Homestead, who quickly secured the steel mill and placed the plant and the surrounding town under martial law.

While the conflict at Homestead was playing out, Carnegie was vacationing at a remote castle in Scotland, where he spent much of each year. Though workers and members of the press tried to reach him, he remained inaccessible but stayed in communication with Frick, whose actions he endorsed.

Impact of the Homestead strike

Though the Homestead workers initially enjoyed widespread public support, this changed after their brutal treatment of the Pinkertons, as well as an attempt made on Frick’s life in late July by the anarchist Alexander Berkman, who had no connection with the union. Homestead resumed operations in full by mid-August 1892, thanks to some 1,700 strikebreakers, including some of the state’s first Black steelworkers.

Many of the striking workers had returned to work by mid-October, and the union admitted defeat the following month. The strike’s leaders were charged with murder, and others with lesser crimes. None were convicted, but the damage to unionized labor at Homestead had been done. With Amalgamated out of the way, Carnegie slashed wages across the board, implemented a 12-hour workday and cut hundreds of jobs in the years to come.

The Homestead debacle helped turn public opinion against the use of hired help like the Pinkertons in labor disputes, and 26 states passed laws outlawing it in the years following the strike. Carnegie’s own reputation suffered irreparable damage, with critics branding him a hypocrite and a coward for hiding out in Scotland and allowing Frick to do the dirty work.

Still, profits at Carnegie Steel continued to rise as its productivity outpaced its competitors, even as membership in the Amalgamated dropped from more than 20,000 in 1892 to 8,000 by 1895. The Homestead strike broke the power of the Amalgamated and effectively ended unionizing among steelworkers in the United States for the next 26 years, before it made a resurgence at the end of World War I.

Sources

The Strike at Homestead Mill. PBS American Experience.
The 1892 Battle of Homestead. The Battle of Homestead Foundation.
Leon Wolff, “Battle at Homestead.” American Heritage. Volume 16, Issue 3, April 1965. 1892 Homestead Strike. AFL-CIO.org

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