Aspire | Action | Acquire
Aspire | Action | Acquire

Battle of Homestead

In an ominous sign, the white flags of surrender on one of two barges towed along the Monongahela River were immediately shot down by workers. The steelworkers and their families lined the banks to prevent a posse of around three hundred mercenaries from landing ashore to regain control of the Homestead steelworks. Near to one-hundred-and-forty years earlier, on 9 July 1755, Scottish born General Edward Braddock met his demise nearby. He and a small contingent of poorly equipped corps were there to secure the area from the French.

In the annals of business history, the fight between labor and capital along the Monongahela River on July 6, 1892 is known as the “Battle of Homestead.” Some two-hundred-and-fifty poorly trained mercenaries, known as “Pinkertons” were no match for around 5,000 working family members who gathered to prevent the company regaining control of its works to let in watchmen. Only a week earlier, the workers had been locked out only one hour before a planned strike over a change in pay and conditions affecting its highest-paid workers.

Bloodshed was experienced on both sides. In all 9 strikers and 7 mercenaries were killed or wounded. What defines the Homestead strike from other bloody encounters, and most notably the Great Rail Strike of 1877 which claimed more than one-hundred-and-thirty workers across several states, is the organization of labor into unions. Up until Homestead, Andrew Carnegie, who by then had passed the chairmanship of Carnegie Steel to Henry Clay Frick, was seen as a champion of labor. His own father and uncle were chartists in Scotland.

Andrew Carnegie had purchased the Homestead mill in 1883, some nine years earlier than the strike, and only two years after its construction. The owners approached Carnegie due to mounting losses caused by falling steel prices and labor unrest. As told by biographer Burton Hendrick, “For more than a year life in this town was nothing but a phantasmagoria of strikes, lockouts, and riots.”[1] Ultimately, none of the Pinkertons would leave unscathed for their experience and it would take the National Guard of Pennsylvania to restore order to the mill and town.

In the decade leading up to the strike at Carnegie’s Homestead mill, labor was represented at its other works by the Sons of Vulcan, which Burton Hendrick’s described as an old fashioned puddlers’ group[2]. In 1876 the Sons of Vulcan merged into the Amalgamated Association. Two other significant organizations emerged at this time: The Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor. By 1887, the Amalgamated Association, the steel industry’s most powerful union, had joined with for others and aligned to the American Federation of Labor.

With the rise of unions came a greater consciousness of labor sharing in the rewards of production. While Carnegie’s retooled mills meant that fewer workers could produce greater output, and therefore profits, it was his mindset that workers should share in the falls as well as the rises in the steel price. Despite the price of steel declining by 19 percent in the three years preceding the strike, Carnegie’s operations earned record profits. At the Homestead mill, which had been retooled for military production, the number of workers increased from 1,600 to 3,800; of which less than a quarter were impacted by the company’s proposed plans[3].

[1] Burton J. Hendrick, The Life of Andrew Carnegie (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1933), 261.

[2] Burton J. Hendrick, The Life of Andrew Carnegie (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1933), 318.

[3] Les Standiford. Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership that Transformed America (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006), 117, 240.