Battle At Homestead

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By 1892 Andrew Carnegie, so-called “angel of the workingman,” once a penniless lad from Scotland, had established himself as steel master of the world and majority shareholder in the all-powerful Carnegie Steel Company, focussed in western Pennsylvania. Of all the iron, steel, and coke works contained within his peerless semimonopolistic empire, none compared in magnitude and output with the unit at Homestead.

 
 

By 1892 Andrew Carnegie, so-called “angel of the workingman,” once a penniless lad from Scotland, had established himself as steel master of the world and majority shareholder in the all-powerful Carnegie Steel Company, focussed in western Pennsylvania. Of all the iron, steel, and coke works contained within his peerless semimonopolistic empire, none compared in magnitude and output with the unit at Homestead.

That grim borough lay near Pittsburgh on the south bank of the Monongahela River. Together, Homestead and the adjacent town of Munhall had a population of 12,000, and practically every able-bodied man and boy was employed by the mill. The unalleviated peril and harshness of their working conditions are hard to believe by modern standards. In and near Pittsburgh during 1891 alone, about three hundred men were killed and over two thousand injured while “working aside of hell ahead of time,” as one employee put it. Except for a few isolated acts of feeble generosity, the Carnegie company offered no financial compensation to the mutilated men or their survivors. On the other hand, wages were adequate and the men and their families by and large were satisfied with their way of life. The great majority worked twelve hours daily, seven days a week. Only Christmas and the Fourth of July were holidays.

Semiretired, Carnegie spent half of each year in Europe and left affairs to his lieutenant, Henry Clay Frick. A multimillionaire in his own right, general manager of the company and its second largest shareholder, this withdrawn, gelid individual detested the concept of labor organization and was determined to break the union’s grip on Homestead. Of necessity this narrative must deal with superlatives; thus it should be noted that the American Federation of Labor, though only six years old, was already the world’s largest and wealthiest union, and that its most powerful component—the world’s mightiest single craft union, in fact—was the conservative Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, almost twenty-five thousand strong. Its president was a huge, amiable former steelworker named William Weihe.

Although Amalgamated members at Homestead numbered only 325 out of the work force of 3,800, they ran the local show. This small, elite group of highly paid specialists, a bone in the throats of Carnegie and Frick, negotiated wage scales for all employees (except the thousand-odd illiterate Slavic day laborers, who earned fourteen cents per hour), fought incessantly over work rules, enforced the adjustment of complaints, and in general badgered the company into acceding to most of its demands. By the mere threat of a strike, the Amalgamated had won a moderate victory in 1889. A contract rather humiliating to management had been signed, to expire June 30, 1892. As the deadline neared, a battle of giants loomed. That spring Mr. Carnegie had left for Scotland. Now, in essence, it was Frick vs. the Amalgamated.

Suddenly it dawned upon the Homestead local that a showdown was imminent and that the union’s very existence in all Carnegie plants was at stake. Hurried recruitments brought in four hundred new members. An advisory (strike) committee was formed, headed by an intense, quick-thinking young man named Hugh O’Donnell. Measures were taken to block ingress to the mill, should negotiations fail. A launch (the Edna ) was chartered, arrangements were made for dozens of skiffs to patrol the river, especially near the mill’s waterfront entrance, and an elaborate picketing system was drawn up.

Meanwhile Mr. Frick had not been idle. He had a twelve-foot board fence, topped by barbed wire, erected around the plant. It curved from the waterfront east and west and contained loopholes, shoulder high, every twenty-five feet. Sardonically the workers termed the arrangement “Fort Frick.” He began preliminary correspondence with the Pinkerton Detective Agency to furnish guards for the purpose of taking over the mill.

 

Three conferences between union and company officials took place between March and late June; but despite compromises on both sides the talks collapsed. Frick then announced that he would no longer deal with the Amalgamated and that work would commence as usual on July 6, on management’s terms and without recognition of the union.

In a mass meeting, all 3,800 workers voted to strike—a shock to Frick, who had expected to confront only the small minority of union members. He then contracted definitely with William and Robert Pinkerton for an armed force of three hundred men (at five dollars per day per man) to be towed up the river in two barges early on July 6 and placed inside the works. The stage was set for one of the most murderous and dramatic tragedies in U.S. labor-management annals.