This Day in American Labor History: July 6, 1892

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:

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