August 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 5
In his own time there raged about Andrew Carnegie, as about any man who pushes his head above the crowd, many a controversy. From the standpoint of his place in history, none is more important than the great strike that erupted at the Homestead, Pennsylvania, works of the Carnegie Steel Company in the summer of 1892.
Carnegie himself owned a controlling interest in the company, but when the strike broke in July he was, in accordance with his annual custom, on an extended vacation in Scotland. In charge at Homestead was Henry Clay Frick, the company’s hard-driving, forty-one-year-old chairman. Frick’s attitude toward labor unions was quite blunt: he was against them, and he was out to break the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, which represented the plant’s skilled laborers.
Carnegie’s labor views, like his attitude toward wealth, were not quite so simple. In two magazine articles in 1886 he had expressed pro-labor sentiments remarkable in a capitalist of his times; where strikebreaking was concerned (and it was to become a key issue in the Homestead strike) he had been particularly forthright: to the traditional Ten Commandments he had suggested adding an eleventh- “Thou shall not take thy neighbor’s job.” Nevertheless, before leaving for Scotland in the spring of 1892 he sent Frick a notice to be posted at the works informing the men that after the expiration on July i of the existing agreement with the Amalgamated, the Carnegie Steel Company would be operated as a non-union shop.
The union had enrolled only about one-fifth of the workers at Homestead, and when contract negotiations broke down late in June, Frick adopted a tactic calculated to divide the unskilled majority from the organized elite: he declared he would close the mill on July i and reopen it on July 6 with non-union men. He surrounded the plant with a high board fence; he topped it with barbed wire, pierced it with portholes—for observation, he later claimed —and erected at strategic intervals platforms equipped with searchlights. To make sure he could fulfill his promise to reopen the works, he arranged secretly for three hundred armed Pinkerton guards to be brought up the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh in the early morning hours of July 6. Clearly, Frick was ready for a fight. But the workers stole a march on him. The unskilled majority, mostly illiterate immigrants, closed ranks with the union men against the company, seized the plant, and assumed control of the town as well.
The night of July 5-6 was foggy, and the Pinkertons headed upriver silently in two covered barges. Union sentries on the bank were not deceived, however, and when the barges tied up at the company wharf at 4 A.M. , the strikers were ready for them. At once, gunfire broke out. Early in the fray the tug that had towed the barges steamed away, leaving the Pinkertons stranded at the dock. All day —with dynamite bombs, a small brass cannon, and even oil thrown on the water and set afire—the strikers sought to overwhelm the invaders (right). Finally the Pinkertons surrendered and were permitted to leave Homestead on a train, after being forced to run a gantlet of screaming, rockthrowing, club-wielding workers and their wives. Three Pinkertons and ten strikers had been killed, some thirty Pinkertons and an unknown number of strikers wounded. On July 12 the Pennsylvania National Guard arrived to restore order, and by the fifteenth Frick was able to reopen the mill. Strikebreakers were brought in (eventually about three-fifths of the old workers lost their jobs), and by November the union had surrendered. Sympathy strikes at other Carnegie mills were also defeated by strikebreakers, and it was clear that unionization of the steel industry was a lost cause. As late as 1932 Carnegie’s authorized biographer was able to say with some pride: “Not a union man has since entered the Carnegie works.”
What had been Carnegie’s attitude during the strike? As soon as he heard about it he cabled Frick that he would take the next boat home. Frick and his associates insisted he stay where he was. Even after July 23, when Frick was shot and stabbed (by a Russian-born anarchist who had no connection with the strikers), he insisted in a cable to Carnegie: “There is no necessity for you to come home. I am still in shape to fight the battle out.” To the newspapers Frick announced that he was going to fight “if it takes all summer and all winter, and all next summer and all next winter. Yes, even my life itself. I will fight this thing to the bitter end. I will never recognize the union, never, never!” Carnegie, knowing that if he came home Frick would resign, made his fateful decision: he would back his lieutenant. The day after the Homestead battle he cabled Frick: “All anxiety gone since you stand firm. Never employ one of these rioters. Let grass grow over works. …”
This was his public reaction. To friends he showed quite a different face. Stung by criticism of his actions both here and abroad, he wrote to Britain’s Prime Minister William E. Gladstone in September: “This is the trial of my life.” Frick’s hiring of strikebreakers was “a foolish step,” he went on, and added: “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.”
The truth was that had Carnegie been on the ground when the strike broke, trouble might never have started, for the men worshipped him. During the dispute he received a cable from the union’s officers which said: “Kind master, tell us what you wish us to do and we shall do it for you.”
It was that simple: Andrew Carnegie represented a style in industrial relations that was passing, an era of the master who knew his men, who looked out for them in good times and bad, and who could expect in return an unbending loyalty. Frick was the impersonal wave of the future, the inflexible representative of absentee owners.
When Carnegie returned to Homestead that fall, he went through the mills, shaking hands with the old employees he recognized and trying to reconcile them to Frick’s management. One of the rollers said to him: “Oh, Mr. Carnegie, it wasn’t a question of dollars. The boys would have let you kick ‘em, but they wouldn’t let that other man stroke their hair.”