U.S. Homestead Steel workers strike to protect unions and wages, 1892

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
There is little detail about the months between September and November, but it is clear that workers retained control of the town and continued the occupation until the end of the campaign.
June
1892
to
November
1892
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Homestead, Pennsylvania
Location Description: 
Company town operated by Carnegie Steel around Homestead Steel Works
Goals: 
Workers sought to keep Carnegie Steel from disbanding the union, cutting wages, and scaling back workers' control in the workplace. These goals attempted to defend gains won in a previous strike.
 

In 1889, workers at the Carnegie Company’s Homestead Works on the Monongahela River southeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania forced the company to pay workers according to a sliding scale corresponding to the price of steel. This set up a correlation between wages and the company’s profits. It also officially recognized the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, or AA, as the representative craft union for the plant and introduced the union as a powerful force in the operation of the plant. Three years later, in the winter of 1892, Andrew Carnegie, who had reluctantly negotiated the earlier settlement with workers, was in Europe and Henry Clay Frick—now head of the plant—sought to revoke sliding scale payment and cut wages as the cost of living rose. While Carnegie supported the unions publicly, he agreed to Frick’s desire to break them.

In January of 1892, Carnegie Steel proposed an 18% wage reduction as part of a new pay scale. The contract employees had pressured the company to sign in 1889 was set to expire on June 30th. In advance, Carnegie amplified the Homestead plant’s production and left for an extended vacation in Scotland, leaving Frick, who lacked Carnegie’s benevolent reputation towards labor, in charge. Negotiations leading up to the contract’s end were tense. In mid-June, Frick issued a statement claiming that if the two sides did not come to an agreement by June 24th, he would deal only with workers “as individuals,” not as members of the union’s collective bargaining bloc. Following his word, on June 25th, Frick announced that he would no longer negotiate with the union. Shortly thereafter, he also announced wage cuts for 325 employees.

In retaliation for the wage cut, workers in and out of the union hanged effigies of Frick and the plant’s superintendent J.A. Potter. Using this show as an excuse, Frick ordered the erection of a 12-foot high, 3-mile long, barbwire-topped cement barricade around the plant. On June 28th, he locked workers, mostly the skilled workers represented by the union, out of the plate mill and one furnace. The next day, after management and the union had failed to reach a collective bargaining agreement, he closed workers off to the remainder of the plant. On June 30th, the contract between Carnegie Steel and the Union had expired and the entire plant was shut down. By July 2nd, the entire workforce—union and non-union—of the Homestead Plant was laid off.

The AA called an emergency meeting to deal with the layoffs and the plant’s closure. It formed an Advisory Committee with five representatives from each of the union’s 8 lodges. While the AA represented just 750 of the plant’s 3,800 workers, they asked for support from all employees. 3,000 voted almost unanimously to strike. Workers quickly got to work setting up elaborate communication systems and modes of organization. They took over the town’s utilities, and had a picket line over 100 employees patrolling the river for incoming ships. 1000 picketers blocked 11 deputy sheriffs from entering the town. The union enlisted a paddle steamer, named Edna, to help, as well as an armada of smaller ships controlled by strikers. The town sheriff failed to raise a force large enough that was willing to fight against their fellow townspeople. Strikers were happy to ferry them back to Pittsburgh in Edna.

Strikers’ allies in Ohio informed Homestead workers that Pinkerton Detectives, which had been used previously on the side of management in labor struggles, were on the way to Homestead to protect incoming scab labor brought in by the company to resume plant operations. On the night of July 5th, an informant in Pittsburgh telegraphed strikers at Homestead that a barge was on its way. Strikers quickly mobilized the town and 10,000 townspeople, many of them armed, were there to greet the Pinkertons. Strikers on shore warned “detectives” not to step off their barges, but a firefight began at 4 A.M. after the forces made landfall. It is unclear who fired first, but fighting continued until 5 P.M on July 6th when angry workers and allies declared victory and forced detectives to run through a bloody gauntlet on their way back to the ships. In all, nine workers and three detectives were killed and many more wounded as a result of the fighting.

In retaliation for the death of the workers, Alexander Berkman—working loosely with the Homestead strikers—unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Frick on July 23rd. While Berkman was apprehended and imprisoned for many years, he and his lover Emma Goldman would become powerful advocates for working class struggles in the years to come.

After winning the July 6th battle, workers retained control of the town and kept the import of non-unionized labor into the plant to a minimum. On July 6th, however, Pennsylvania Governor Robert E. Pattinson granted Frick’s request to bring in the National Guard. On July 12th, 8500 troops arrived and were greeted deadpan by the AA’s cheers and impromptu band. The National Guard’s presence, however, made it possible for the Company to begin ferrying in more replacement workers and begin production. This provoked solidarity strikes in the nearby Carnegie operations at Beaver Falls, Duquesne, and Union Iron Mills, which had previously been uninvolved. On July 16th, the Company notified strikers that they would have until July 21st to apply for rehiring. None did.

By August, the Company had imported enough non-unionized labor to allow full production to begin. They did, though, have difficulty finding skilled labor willing to do the jobs left by those in the entirely skilled AA. This required Carnegie to bring in skilled scab labor in part against their will, with many claiming they were falsely lured to Homestead from other mills only to find that they did not receive the wages and working conditions they were promised.

The company also began pursuing a number of tactics against strikers, including carrying out costly court cases in relation to the July 6th fight. Overall, 160 strikers were charged for crimes relating to the firefight, but all were acquitted by friendly juries. The entire Advisory Committee was indicted for treason on the ground that resisting the National Guard was akin to “War Against the State.” Once again, however, none of the strikers was convicted.

Throughout the fall, workers maintained control of the town, though production was turned over entirely to scab labor, however poorly they worked. After holding the town for four months, on November 17th, unskilled, non-unionized (former) day laborers and mechanics at Homestead asked the Advisory Committee to be released from their strike pledge and voted to return to work. As a result of both this and the growing fatigue of the strikers maintaining the town, the union collapsed as membership in the AA plummeted and strikers returned to work.

While the Homestead eventually lost its battle, they managed to take control of the town and the plant from one of the United States’ largest companies for four months, evoking the sympathy and solidarity of activists nationwide. Frick dramatically reduced the power of the union in the Company’s operations, and blacklisted all of its leaders. Homestead would prove a turning point for the labor movement and inspire workers across the country to see the violence management and, notably, the State, was willing to use to break organized labor. The strike also damaged Carnegie’s personal reputation as a “friend of labor,” and gave Carnegie (later U.S.) Steel a reputation for years to come as an anti-union employer.

Research Notes
Sources: 
"1892 Homestead Strike." www.aflcio.org. AFL-CIO, n.d. Web. 16 Oct 2011 <http://www.aflcio.org/aboutus/history/history/homestead_strike.cfm>.

"1892: The Homestead Strike." libcom.org. libcom.org, 27 Jul 2009. Web. 16 Oct 2011. <http://libcom.org/history/1982-homestead-strike>.

"1892: The Homestead strike." libcom.org. libcom.org, 09 Sep 2005. Web. 14 Oct 2011. <http://libcom.org/history/articles/homestead-strike-1892>.

Brecher, Jeremy. Strike!. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1997. Print.

Dray, Philip. There Is Power In A Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America. New York: Doubleday, 2010. Print.

Goldner, Cheri. "The Homestead Strike 1892." Bowling Green State University, n.d. Web. 13 Oct 2011. <http://www.bgsu.edu/departments/acs/1890s/carnegie/strike.html>.

"The Homestead Strike." American Experience. Public Broadcasting, 1999. Web. 13 Oct 2011. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/carnegie/peopleevents/pande04.html>.

Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. Harper Perennial Modern Classics deluxe ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010. Print.

Additional Notes: 
This case was one of the first instances in the U.S. of state forces being called upon to protect industrial interests, something that would become more common in labor struggles throughout the twentieth century.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Kate Aronoff, 16/10/2011