Sunday, May 18, 2014

Fall from Grace: The Homestead Strike of 1892

Worker behind a cover during the shoot out
After the bloody and devastating Civil War, a period of industrial boom soon followed. The period known as the Gilded Age saw the rise of many industrialist, mostly were known as Robber Barons. This group of industrialist abused the lack of laws that protect fair competition, dissent wages, and safe working conditions. They subjected their workers to long hours work in very harsh working conditions for meager wages. In 1892, a union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AA), pushed for a strike to voice their concerned on the management of the Homestead Steel Plant owned by the steel tycoon, Andrew Carnegie, and his right hand man, Henry Frick.

The Homestead Strike of the Homestead workers was a bloody episode that tarnished the name of Andrew Carnegie. The steel plant in Homestead was among the major plants owned by Carnegie. But it had already suffered a problem during the late 1880's. In 1889, the Union won a 3-year collective bargaining agreement. The rise on the cost of labor did not just rose the production cost but also made Carnegie's profit unstable. In 1890, the price of steel declined from a price of $35 down to $22. The huge decrease caused the profits of Carnegie to decline further. And so, to maximize profits once more, Carnegie must act to lower production cost. At top of the needed slashes was on labor. In 1892, the 3-year collective bargaining was about to end. It was a chance for Carnegie to lower wages and to take on the Union.

At the entry of 1892, Carnegie decided to go ahead against the Union. Carnegie did not want to be directly involved in the strike. He placed his ruthless and determined chairman, Henry Frick. Frick was known to be right hand man of Carnegie. While Carnegie managed the marketing of his products to major cities, Frick stayed in the steel plants to oversee production and also keep efficiency and high productivity of the facilities.

In March of 1892, Frick and Carnegie braced for upcoming fight. Strikes would caused disruptions to steel production, which equals to profits. To prevent such event happening they began to create a stockpile of steel that would be sold in case of the strike occurring. After Frick began to create the stockpile of steel, he began to provoke the steel union into conducting a strike by slashing their already small wages by 20%. As a protest, some steel workers hanged an effigy of Frick in the workplace to warn the management.

In June of 1892, the rise of tension reached its peaked. In early June, Carnegie decided to go to a vacation overseas, in Scotland to be exact. It was a part of his saving face plan. He did not wanted to be associated with the chaos that he knew would come. In June 25, 1892, the Union members were willing to accept the wage cuts and other conditions except for one vital part - the disbandment of the Union.  

In July 2, 1892, the workers had a meeting, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers pushed for a strike. The results were surprising. Originally, the Union only had 800 members of the (AA) in the Homestead Plant. However, when a vote for a strike was conducted, a whooping 3,000 out of the 3,800 workers decided go to strike. In order to manage the strike, a strike committee was formed.

The moment that Frick and Carnegie had arrived. Carnegie wrote to Frick that he supports whatever he would do. Frick locked down the plant. A perimeter of 12ft. wall with peep wholes were built. Towers of 18ft. with search lights were also erected. The strikers called the whole structure as Fort Frick.The task of guarding the plant first fell under the sheriffs. However, the strikers managed to take out the sheriffs by making them go to another place. 

The workers managed to take hold of the plant. Then on the midnight between July 5 and 6, Frick send in his true army. Men from the Pinkerton Detective Agency arrived in the area via barge. 2 Barges that transport Pinkertons sailed through the Monongahela River, which flowed beside the town.

A story of tragedy was set. As the barges of Pinkertons sailed into Homestead, workers tried to stop them from landing. Some armed strikers fired to the barges. The Pinkertons fired back. A gun battle followed. The barges managed to land some Pinkertons, but the workers desperately tried to stop it by setting the barges to fire. The strikers used dynamites and threw it to the barges. Railroad carts were also set on fire and were pushed and thrown to the barges. Oil was spilled to the river and set on fire. The fight between the management's Pinkertons and strikers lasted for 14 hours before the former decided to pull back. At the end of the chaos, 3 Pinkertons laid wasted. On the other side, 9 workers fell and many more wounded.

The killings became the noise of the whole nation. The numerous media men present because of the strike wrote instantly of the chaos that happened. In July 12, the State Governor, Robert E. Pattison, acted immediately. He ordered for the state militia of 8,000 men to secure peace and order. Following the arrival of the militia, strike breakers that would, for the meantime, replace the striking workers. Following the clash between the Pinkertons and the strikers, a backlash on Frick and Carnegie soon followed. The image of a humble and benevolent tycoon image of Carnegie evaporated. For Frick, it was even much worse. He was hated very much for abusing and killing his workers. The anger that focused on Frick became at its height when a young anarchist Alexander Berkman attempted to kill him on July 23, 1892. Berkman fired two shot to Frick but it failed to kill him. The assassination failed.

The strike lasted for months. The militia stayed to keep security and peace intact. Also, the strikebreakers began to operate the plant. Eventually, many strikers feared the lost of income and began to call off the strike. On November 20, 1892, the strike was called off. The strike committee was disolved.

The management took a revenge. 160 workers were arrested and sued by Carnegie Steel with minor crimes such as destruction of property. Members of the strike committee were also arrested and charged wit murder. Luckily for the strikers, the news of the gruesome response of the management to the strike left most of the public furious of Carnegie Steel. The jury members on the trial of many ring leader of the strike founded them not guilty of any crimes.

The Homestead Strike was not the most infamous but it was deemed very much by many. For Carnegie, it tarnished his image for many years that would come. For Frick, it was the start of his fall from grace. The relation of Carnegie and Frick soured and in 1899, Frick was removed from Carnegie Steel and was replaced by Charles Schwab. The Homestead Strike was an event that showed how capitalism worked in the past. Laborer were abused by many employers. and when they voiced their concerns, forced became usually the way to resolved it. The Homestead Strikes reveals how a labor and management relation could be chaotic and deadly.

See also:
Andrew Carnegie
Charles Schwab
Cleveland Massacre
South Improvement Company

Olsen, J. Encyclopedia of the Industrial Revolution in America. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002. 

Skrabec: Q. The 100 Most Significant Events in American Business: An Encyclopedia. California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2012. 

Skurzynski, G. Sweat and Blood: A History of US Labor Unions. Minnesota: Twenty Century Books, 2009.

 "The Homestead Strike." PBS. Accessed May 18, 2014.

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