By Lenny Flank
By the 1890s, the United States, which had been a largely agricultural society, had been transformed into a rapidly expanding industrial powerhouse, with factories and mills sprouting up in every urban area. The US became a lopsided economy, with a small handful of super-rich making immense profits from a great mass of poorly paid and ill-treated immigrant workers. The result was a series of strikes and industrial warfare, which came to a head in Pittsburgh PA.
The steel industry was the heart of the American economy — and the city of Pittsburgh was the heart of the steel industry. One of the largest steel mills in the city was the Homestead Works, over 200 acres, in the suburb of Homestead. It was owned by Andrew Carnegie.
Carnegie liked to present himself as a benevolent philanthropist who treated his workers well. He also liked to tell the press that he was a supporter of a worker’s right to organize into unions. But in all of his steel mills, he had himself ruthlessly stamped out any efforts to unionize. The Homestead Mill was different, however — when he bought the plant in 1883, it was already unionized with the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. It was a situation that Carnegie, who liked to personally oversee and control every detail of his mill operations, could not tolerate.
In the summer of 1892, the mill’s labor contract with the Amalgamated Union was about to expire, and Carnegie saw his chance to break the union. Before sailing to Europe for his yearly holiday, he appointed his company partner Henry Frick as his representative in the negotiations and instructed Frick to take a hard line. Neither of them wanted to share any management power with a labor union.
Frick, who had previously built up an empire of coal companies, was well-known for his ready use of private “security forces” and scabs to break strikes. Now, with Carnegie’s blessing, he followed the same strategy with the Amalgamated. First, he gave a “take it or leave it” offer to the Union outlining large wage cuts, which he knew they could not possibly agree to. And when the “negotiations” broke down as expected, Frick ended the talks and on June 30 imposed a “lockout”, firing all the union members and hiring non-union “scabs” to replace them.
The result was war — and Frick had already prepared for it. Even as the “negotiations” were going on, Frick had constructed a 10-foot fence, with barbed wire, gun loopholes and guard towers, completely around the three-mile perimeter of the Homestead Mill, intended to keep strikers and union organizers out. The steel workers dubbed it “Fort Frick”. As a “security force” to police their perimeter, the company approached the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency, which was asked to provide what was in essence a privately-run army. (The local police from the town of Homestead, Frick knew, could not be relied upon, since most of the police officers — as well as the town’s Mayor — were former steel workers and union men.) Union members, in turn, appeared in city streets with guns, and although the Union leaders made a public pledge of “no violence”, they also declared that they would “gently but firmly” prevent any scab replacement workers from entering the mill. The stage was set for a civil war.
In a series of telegrams to Carnegie, who was vacationing in Scotland, Frick laid out his plan. The Pinkerton Agency would send 300 armed men, who would be brought up the Monongahela River, secretly in the dead of night to avoid a confrontation with the Union. Once the Pinkertons had entered the mill and established a protected perimeter, Frick would send in his scab replacement workers to start the plant running again. With all its members locked out and jobless, the Amalgamated Iron and Steel Workers Union would be no more. The Pinkertons would make their move on the evening of July 5.
But the Union, with its widespread support among the public, had an excellent intelligence system, quickly found out about Frick’s scheme, and made preparations to meet it. When the 300-armed Pinkertons (most of them newly hired just for this assignment) made their way upriver on July 5, in two barges, the steel workers were ready. By 4am, a group of several thousand strikers, armed with pistols, hunting rifles, sledgehammers, iron bars, knives, and whatever else they could find, gathered at the Homestead Mill’s dock, hiding behind fences and pieces of machinery.
As the two barges made their way to the dock, they were pelted with bricks and rocks. The first Pinkerton to step off the boat was met by a Union official, who told them, “Stop now, or there will be bloodshed”. The two groups of armed men faced each other in a tense standoff.
Then somebody fired a shot. (Both sides blamed each other, and it’s not certain who it was.)
Chaos broke out. The Pinkertons retreated to the shelter of the barges, while the Union men ran behind Fort Frick’s wall. The gunfire lasted for ten minutes before there was a lull. But rather than retreating, the Pinkertons tried once again, after a few hours, to leave the barges and make their way ashore. Gunfire erupted again. As the sun came up, a huge crowd of townspeople gathered on the far shore to watch the battle: spectators sat on chairs as if watching a baseball game. Nearly all were cheering for the Union men. The strikers at Homestead were soon reinforced by fellow steelworkers from nearby Pittsburgh.
The Homestead workers, meanwhile, having pinned down the Pinkertons inside the barges, now attempted to sink the boats right there in the river. First, they piled a small raft with oil-soaked rags, set it alight, and tried to float it downstream to set the barges on fire. Next they tried to push a flaming railroad cart into the side of the Pinkerton boats. Somebody found a few sticks of dynamite in a tool shed, and somebody else found an old cannon which the workers loaded with bits of scrap steel. (The cannoneers managed only to kill one of their own fellow workers who was standing nearby.)
At this point, the captain of the tugboat who had pulled the barges to the dock now decided that he had had enough, and he cut his tow ropes and fled, leaving the engineless barges helplessly adrift. Several times, the Pinkertons tried to show a white flag to surrender — but the gunfire continued. It wasn’t until 12 hours of combat that the crowd of steel workers agreed to allow the Pinkertons to leave the barges, drop their weapons, and surrender. They were marched away by a column of townspeople, who couldn’t resist clubbing their hated enemies with sticks and rocks. “You could almost hear the skulls crack”, one newspaper reported. The Pinkertons all left town on the very next train. The barges they had occupied were burnt and sank. The “Battle of Homestead” had resulted in 7 dead steelworkers and 3 dead Pinkertons.
For a time, it seemed as if the workers had won. Armed Union men now patrolled “Frick’s Fort”, guarding against any further attempts to reopen the Mill. But public opinion, which had almost universally condemned the steel company’s use of a private army to break the strike, was not supportive of the occupation of the mill by the strikers. Carnegie, meanwhile, while telling the press that he did not approve of the use of armed men to provoke violence, also sent Frick a private message supporting him.
Frick, meanwhile, now turned to the Governor of Pennsylvania. Arguing that Homestead was in a state of “insurrection”, he convinced the Governor to send 8500 National Guard troops to “maintain order”. The militiamen arrived on July 12, imposed martial law, and quickly secured the Mill while arresting over 100 Union leaders and town officials on charges ranging from murder to treason. Within days, the steel mill was back in operation with non-union labor. Carnegie had gotten what he wanted. The former union workers were offered the chance to return to their old jobs — if they could prove they had not participated in the violence and if they signed an anti-union pledge. Nobody took up the offer.
The Homestead Strike closed with an odd postscript. On July 23, an anarchist from Chicago named Alexander Berkman, seeking revenge for the dead strikers, entered Frick’s office in Pittsburgh, shot him twice and stabbed him with a dagger. Frick survived, and the assassination attempt, almost overnight, swung public opinion against unionists, anarchists, socialists, and radicals of every sort. One Union official was heard to remark that while Berkman hadn’t killed Frick, he had managed to kill the Homestead Strike. In November, five months after the battle on the Monongahela River, the locked-out steel workers agreed to return to work on Carnegie’s terms. “Our victory.” Frick cabled to Carnegie, “is now complete.”
Lenny is a longtime labor organizer and environmental, social, and antiwar activist. He was a founder of the Lehigh Valley IWW in the early 1990s.
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