This occasional series will highlight moments in American labor and working-class history writ large, including the history of American radicalism and the history of slavery, which too often takes a backseat in American labor history. You can expect 1-3 of these posts a month. I have a running list of 20 dates to talk about over the next year.
On July 6, 1892 and in one of the Gilded Age’s most notorious anti-labor acts of violence, 300 Pinkerton detectives, working for Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Steel, cracked down on thousands of strikers, leading to a gunfight that killed three Pinkertons and seven strikers.
Steelworkers lived hard lives in the late 19th century. Carnegie saw himself as a benevolent employer. He’s more famous for his post-retirement charities, but during his career as an industrialist, he theoretically believed workers should have a chance to improve themselves. So long as that didn’t get in the way of efficiency of course. Carnegie had even given public statements about workers’ right to unionize. Despite Carnegie’s rhetoric about the self-made man (which he himself undoubtedly was), when the rubber met the road, he was as willing to crush his workers the same as the most ruthless Gilded Age capitalists.
But these steelworkers had some success improving their lives during the late 1880s. In 1889, Homestead workers under the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers struck and won wage gains for the next 3 years. The AA had been a force in western Pennsylvania throughout the 1880s, beginning with an 1881 organizing of the Bessemer Steelworks in Homestead. It then went on to Carnegie in 1882, where it managed to beat down Homestead over yellow-dog contracts, which are contracts that make not joining a union a condition of employment. It continued fighting for worker rights through the successful 1889 action. That contract ended in 1892.
Rather than negotiate with the workers again, Carnegie left for a trip to his native Scotland and left the situation to his right-hand man, the loathsome Henry Clay Frick. Carnegie wanted the union crushed; he believed it got in the way of efficiency. Frick, a man who had no sympathy with working-class people, refused to negotiate in good faith with the workers. Carnegie gave Frick carte blanche to deal with the union in any way he liked.
The American economy was beginning to shutter in 1892. The boom and bust cycle of the Gilded Age was preparing for the biggest bust in American history the next year. Steel prices had begun to decline. Carnegie and Frick decided that destroying the union was the solution to their decreased profits. Workers asked for a wage increase; Frick came back with an offer of a 22% decrease.
Carnegie workers responded by hanging Frick in effigy, though not Carnegie. Frick began locking out workers on June 28 and by the last day of the contract, June 30, the entire workforce was locked out. The workers united to keep out scabs, but Frick called in the Pinkertons to bust the strike.
In part, the Declaration of the Strike said:
“The employees in the mill of Messrs. Carnegie, Phipps & Co., at Homestead, Pa., have built there a town with its homes, its schools and its churches; have for many years been faithful co-workers with the company in the business of the mill; have invested thousands of dollars of their savings in said mill in the expectation of spending their lives in Homestead and of working in the mill during the period of their efficiency. . . . “Therefore, the committee desires to express to the public as its firm belief that both the public and the employees aforesaid have equitable rights and interests in the said mill which cannot be modified or diverted without due process of law; that the employees have the right to continuous employment in the said mill during efficiency and good behavior without regard to religious, political or economic opinions or associations; that it is against public policy and subversive of the fundamental principles of American liberty that a whole community of workers should be denied employment or suffer any other social detriment on account of membership in a church, a political party or a trade union; that it is our duty as American citizens to resist by every legal and ordinary means the unconstitutional, anarchic and revolutionary policy of the Carnegie Company, which seems to evince a contempt [for] public and private interests and a disdain [for] the public conscience. . . .”
From the American Experience site on this incident, historian Paul Krause:
Workers believed because they had worked in the mill, they had mixed their labor with the property in the mill. They believed that in some way the property had become theirs. Not that it wasn’t Andrew Carnegie’s, not that they were the sole proprietors of the mill, but that they had an entitlement in the mill. And I think in a fundamental way the conflict at Homestead in 1892 was about these two conflicting views of property.”
To say the least, Frick and Carnegie had no tuck for this more cooperative view of property.
When the Pinkertons arrived early in the morning on July 6, they met an armed force ready to fight for their jobs. For the next 13 hours, the two sides traded gunfire. Eventually, the Pinkertons surrendered, although that really just meant they stopped fighting.
It’s important to remember how loathed the Pinkertons were by many Americans in these years. In the series Deadwood, the Pinkertons are seen by almost everyone in the town as the ultimate enemy because it meant the capitalists had sent in the goons to destroy their little civilization. This depiction is not far off. Although the company became famous by protecting Abraham Lincoln, in the Gilded Age, like the Republican Party as a whole, the Pinkertons turned to pulling out all stops to protect an extreme version of property rights by any means necessary.
With the failure of the Pinkertons to crush the strike, Frick and his henchmen created new tactics to bring down the union. Frick convinced Pennsylvania Governor Robert Pattison to send in the National Guard. In 1892, the National Guard existed as a strikebreaking force, so the arrival of troops only strengthened Frick’s hand. Frick then evicted strikers from company homes. He had strikers arrested repeatedly so they would have to put up bail they could not afford.
During the episode, the anarchist Alexander Berkman (also famous for being Emma Goldman’s lover) walked into Frick’s office on July 23 and shot him in the face. Not atypical of anarchist actions, Berkman operated completely outside the organization of the AA or any other organization. Taking it upon himself to revenge the Pinkerton invasion, he undermined public support for the union and got himself a 22 year prison sentence as well.
The strike held for several months, but against unbeatable odds, the steelworkers began slipping away. On November 17, 1892, people began returning to work. The company was glad to let them, blacklisting the leaders and welcoming the rest back into an aggressively non-union shop.
Frick recovered to crush an 1896 attempt to organize Homestead. Homestead remained nonunion for the next 40 years. He remains today one of the most loathed CEOs in American history.
Andrew Carnegie expressed guilt over Homestead. He wrote William Gladstone:
This is the trial of my life (death’s hand excepted). Such a foolish step — contrary to my ideals, repugnant to every feeling of my nature. Our firm offered all it could offer, even generous terms. Our other men had gratefully accepted them. They went as far as I could have wished, but the false step was made in trying to run the Homestead Works with new men. It is a test to which workingmen should not be subjected. It is expecting too much of poor men to stand by and see their work taken by others. . . The pain I suffer increases daily. The Works are not worth one drop of human blood. I wish they had sunk.
And yeah, that’s fine. I hope he felt guilty. Because for all his rhetoric and puritanical religious beliefs, when it came down to giving his workers a fair stake in a system which made him one of the world’s richest men, he chose to send it goons and then the National Guard to destroy the union. All the libraries in the world don’t make up for that.
After all, I’d argue that the measure of the rich is how they make their money, not what they do with it after its made.