Homestead strike - History of Business in the U.S.The Event: Major labor conflict between unionized steelworkers and industrial magnates Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick
Date: July, 1892
Place: Homestead, Pennsylvania
Significance: A strike by the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers against the Homestead Steel Works Company turned violent when Pinkerton agents and the state militia were sent to break the strike. This strike marked a new level of organization on the part of strikers but also resulted in the destruction of the union and its loss of influence in the Pittsburgh area steel mills.
Homestead, Pennsylvania, is an Allegheny County borough on the southeast border of the city of Pittsburgh along the Monongahela River. Andrew Carnegie’s 1883 acquisition of the Homestead Steel Works Company, the industry’s most efficient steel plant, increased his almost monopolistic control over steel production in the United States. Carnegie converted Homestead’s production to rolling beams and angles to diversify and increase capacity. While Carnegie was acquiring the Homestead works, he was investing in the Henry Clay Frick Coke Company to guarantee a sufficient supply of iron ore and coke for steel production. In 1889 Homestead’s craft union of skilled workers, Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, held a contract that was about to expire. Carnegie was determined to lower wages by establishing a sliding wage scale. He left the means to a management team and sailed for Europe. The workers went on strike. When more than two thousand locals attacked the sheriff and his deputies who arrived to break the strike, the Homestead works manager gave in to the workers’ demands for a new three-year contract and official recognition as the plant’s bargaining agent in return for the union’s acceptance of a sliding wage scale.
When the steelworkers’ contract came up for renewal in 1892, Carnegie was determined to take a stronger stand. He hired coke magnate Henry Clay Frick as general manager. Frick was know for his ruthlessness against employees and was regarded as the most antilabor industrialist in the country. Carnegie, who was thinking of retirement, set sail for Europe, leaving Frick in charge. Frick was determined to lower the wage scale and end Amalgamated Association of Iron and SteelWorkers’ role as a union bargaining agent. He constructed a stockade around the plant equipped with watchtowers, barbed wire, and rifle slits. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency was hired to bring three hundred agents to take control of the Homestead works and to reopen the plant with nonunion workers and workers who had left the union.
The Homestead strike began on July 1, 1892. The Pinkerton agents arrived by river on July 6. When the Homestead workers and residents learned about management’s plan to break the strike, they prevented the barges fromlanding. They poured oil on the river and set it afire. Stranded, the Pinkertons agreed to a truce, which permitted their safe arrival on shore. However, the crowd’s anger could not be contained. Nine strikers and seven agents were killed, and many of the rest of the Pinkertons sustained injuries. The Pinkerton agency’s reputation was permanently tarnished as antilabor. At the request of management, the governor of Pennsylvania sent the state militia to retake the Homestead borough and plant. On July 23, anarchist Alexander Berkman entered Frick’s office and shot and stabbed him, but Frick survived.
These engravings from an 1892 Harper’s Weekly show a mob of people assailing the Pinkerton men (top) and the barges burning. (Library of Congress)
The Homestead Strike broke the union and led to Frick’s successful removal of unions at the rest of the Carnegie steel plants. Although supportive of Frick’s management style, Carnegie regretted the violence; later, he secretly contributed to pensions for some of the strikers and offered a relief fund for former Homestead employees. Carnegie did not retire but instead resumed control over his steel empire and Frick’s management of it. Carnegie’s reputation as a progressive employer and champion of labor was destroyed. Homestead continued to have sporadic labor problems until 1899, precipitating a steady decline in production at the plant into the next century.
William A. Paquette
Krooth, Richard. A Century Passing: Carnegie, Steel, and the Fate of Homestead. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2002.
Standiford, Les. Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Transformed America. New York: Crown Publishers, 2005.
Whitelaw, Nancy. The Homestead Strike of 1892. Greensboro, N.C.: Morgan Reynolds, 2006.
See also: Coal industry; Coal strike of 1902; labor history; labor strikes; steel industry; Steel mill seizure of 1952.