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The Homestead Steel Strike

by Larry Ciptak

from Out of This Kitchen: a History of the Ethnic Groups and Their Foods in the Steel Valley


The Homestead Strike of 1892


Labor-management relations in the rural iron and steel industries were relatively peaceful in Pennsylvania through most of the early 1800s. Industry leaders played a paternalistic role to their workers, often supplying them with housing, land for gardens and other benefits. But the situation would change in the late 1850s, when the use of coke for blast furnace fuel enabled mills to move to the cities where a greater supply of labor and better transportation would allow mass production, and larger-scale enterprises sprang up.

The first strike in the industry occurred in 1842 when molders in Pittsburgh walked off the job in protest of wage cuts. The molders lost that fight, but three years later Pittsburgh boilers and puddlers won their battle against wage cuts.

Up to this time unionization efforts focused on individual craft groups. But in 1850 Pittsburgh puddlers, heaters, boilers, refiners and scrappers walked off the job united. The strike was lost within two months when the company brought in recent immigrants as strikebreakers–the first of many such actions that would occur in Pittsburgh.

The workers realized the benefit of united action, and in 1858 formed a secret society of boilers and puddlers, the Sons of Vulcan, a society organized to conduct covert unionization, according to Pittsburgh historian George Swetnam in Labor-Management Relations in Pennsylvania's Steel Industry, 1800-1959. The union remained hidden until the Civil War brought the industry out of depression, and in 1862 the Grand Forge of the United States, United Sons of Vulcan, was formed as a national union. Within five years, the movement had spread to seven other states.

A series of post-Civil War strikes by the Sons of Vulcan ended with the union and employers agreeing in 1867 to a sliding-scale agreement, where the men were paid by the ton of billet they produced. Peace between labor and management lasted for seven years.

In 1875 the Sons of Vulcan united with three craft unions to form the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. According to Swetnam, the Sons of Vulcan–who made up 85 percent of the membership–dominated the new union.

The union faced numerous difficulties, but despite companies' attempts to destroy them, membership continued to grow, from 11,800 in 1883 to 24,000 in 1891. But then came the pivotal event for not only the Amalgamated, but to organized labor throughout the United States: the Homestead Strike of 1892.

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It's been called a lockout, a strike, a massacre, a war. The 1892 conflict between the Amalgamated union and the Carnegie Steel Company was at first a lockout, then became a strike when company officials offered the men their jobs back–if they returned under company terms. Since four Pinkerton guards and seven steelworkers were left dead, the term massacre is applicable. And if the struggle of the working class to achieve equality with capitalistic forces can be construed as war, then call it war.

But the aim of this book is not a semantic one. For the purpose of this book–aware that some will argue its usage–the term "strike" will be used as a generic reference to the events occurring at Homestead between July and November 1892.

Located on the Monongahela River six miles south of its junction with the Youghiogheny River, with proximity and access to bituminous coal mines, Homestead–originally earmarked for a residential suburb in the early 1870s–was destined to become America's greatest steel town.

There were 600 residents in 1880 when the foundation for the mill was laid. Within 12 years, the mill–600 acres of riverside property–thrust Homestead's population to 12,000, a full third of them millworkers.

Another 9,000 men worked in other mills owned by the Carnegie Steel Company in Braddock, Duquesne and Beaver Falls. Prior to 1892 the union had never been strong at the Braddock mill, and the Duquesne mill never unionized, Swetnam notes.

The scene was set when the Amalgamated was told by Henry Clay Frick–left in charge while Andrew Carnegie was taking his annual summer vacation at his castle in Scotland–that they were to take a pay cut. If they didn't accept his proposal, non-union workers would man the mill, he warned.

To bring this point home a little more forcefully, Frick had a three-mile wooden fence constructed around the Homestead mill–including a topping of barbed wire and holes in the fencing for "observation"–quickly dubbed "Fort Frick" by the millworkers.

Homestead was chosen as a battle ground "because of the ease with which the mill property could be equipped for offensive and defensive purposes; because the ruin wrought in that town by a disastrous strike would be more sweeping and complete than could be effected anywhere else, and because the Carnegie Company had the largest interests to serve and should, therefore, be willing to bear the brunt of the battle," wrote Pittsburgh journalist Arthur Burgoyne in his 1893 book, The Homestead Strike of 1892. "If war was declared and the lodges at Homestead were broken up, the other manufacturers were to follow the lead of the Carnegie Company."

And follow they did. The broken strike not only stopped the Amalgamated union movement, but eradicated industrial unionism as an effective force in the United States for over 40 years. Though the labor movement continued to exist in the years after the strike, trade union membership declined drastically and what little headway was made was accomplished primarily by the smaller craft unions.

The conflict began June 28 when Frick ordered the armor-plate mill and open hearth closed–putting 800 men out of work–and beginning the lockout. On July 2 the rest of the men received their paychecks and were told not to return.

On July 6–two days after celebrating independence–300 Pinkerton guards hired by Frick to protect non-union workers landed in two barges on the beach in front of the mill. It was never determined who fired first, but what is known is that the ensuing melee left four Pinkertons and seven millworkers dead and scores injured.

After the workers tried to sink, burn and bomb the barges, the panic-stricken Pinkertons surrendered on the condition that they would leave and not return. The powerless Pinkertons were forced to walk a gauntlet of 600 enraged Homesteaders, and those who weren't already injured were savagely beaten as they struggled for the safety of the mill.

The workers burned the barges amidst much hoopla. It became evident to the men that they weren't fighting an isolated battle, but that of "organized labor as a whole, and that the eyes of workingmen all over the continent were upon them," wrote Burgoyne. Indeed, support for the workers poured in from all corners of the continent, and Pittsburgh became the center of the nation's media attention. Workers in the three other Carnegie mills walked out in support of their Homestead brethren.

Pennsylvania Governor Robert Pattison complied with the Allegheny County Sheriff's request for state militia support, and ordered the state's entire force–8,000 militiamen–to Homestead. At the same time, a congressional committee was formed to investigate the violence in Pittsburgh.

Support for the workers was nearly unanimous until July 23 when a Russian anarchist, Alexander Berkman, attempted to assassinate Frick in his office. Though not connected with the Amalgamated in any way, the shooting had a foreboding effect on the workers' cause, and Frick's bravery earned him a number of supporters. Berkman received 22 years in the penitentiary.

But even by the time of the shooting the mill was operating with non-union workers, and on November 20 the union officially gave up. Though most of the striking men eventually got their positions back, they did so without a contract–and in addition took a pay cut and worked longer hours.

The strike lasted 143 days, but the results would be felt for four decades. The final defeat of the 24,000-strong Amalgamated effectively destroyed industrial unionism as a force in the steel industry and set back the progress of organized labor across the nation.