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Battle of Homestead
Mar 07, 2010

Lessons of the Battle of Homestead 1892: Labor can’t rely on ‘kind’ millionaires

The crowd of thousands of men, women, and even children along the riverbank commandeered a raft. They loaded it with oil-soaked lumber, set fire to it, and sent it floating down the river toward the barges. The fire burned out before the raft collided with the two barges filled with private detectives hired by the company.

The workers then sent a burning flatcar loaded with barrels of oil hurtling down the railroad track that ran from the steel mill to the wharf. At the water’s edge, the car came to an abrupt halt before it could hit the barges.
Next, the workers tried to dynamite the barges. Then they poured oil in the water and tried to set the oil on fire, in a move designed to surround the barges with a burning oil slick. Throughout all this, the workers kept up a steady barrage of gunfire directed at the detectives firing at them from the barges.
Industrial workers on strike have often had to act like an army; this month is the anniversary of a bitter conflict in which workers had to develop their own small-scale navy.
July 2007 marks the 115th anniversary of the Battle of Homestead in 1892. The Homestead strike was one of the first great efforts to stop a powerful employer who came to the bargaining table insisting that the workers make huge concessions. It’s particularly important that we remember Homestead because so many workers today find themselves in a similar situation.

Six Lodges of the Amalgamated Association

In 1892, Andrew Carnegie, one of the wealthiest men in the United States, had owned the Homestead Works near Pittsburgh for almost a decade. Since 1889, the skilled workers at the plant had been organized into six lodges of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. The AAISW represented 800 workers out of a total work force of 2,500.
The “Association” was a national organization in the iron and steel industry. Its membership was restricted to skilled workers in the rolling mills and puddling furnaces. The union’s membership did not include the laborers (who were an important part of the labor force.) At the beginning of the 1890s, the AAISW was the largest trade union in the United States, claiming 290 lodges and 24,068 members.
At the beginning of  1892, the workers at Homestead were still operating under an agreement signed by the Carnegie Company and the Amalgamated Association in 1889. (It was due to expire on June 30, 1892.) While Carnegie tried to portray himself as a friend of his employees, he was, in fact, determined to break the union. Carnegie had placed the rabid anti-unionist Henry Clay Frick in charge of his company’s operations in 1881. Carnegie ordered the Homestead plant to manufacture large amounts of inventory so that the plant could survive a strike.
In February 1892, Frick and leaders of the Amalgamated Association began negotiations. Frick proposed a 22 percent wage decrease for almost half the union’s membership. He also proposed to remove a number of positions from the bargaining unit. On April 30, 1892, Frick announced that he would bargain for 29 more days and if no contract was reached by then, Carnegie Steel would cease to recognize the union. (Carnegie formally approved Frick’s tactics on May 4.)

Locked Out at Homestead

On the evening of June 29 and the morning of June 30, the mill at Homestead was shut down, hours before the contract expired.
Before the shutdown, the union contacted the day laborers. They assured the union that they would not work unless the union was recognized. On June 30, a mass meeting of the mechanics and the transportation departments voted to stand by the Amalgamated Association.
The entire Homestead work force of 3,800 fought together – skilled and unskilled, union and non-union, native and foreign-born. An Advisory Committee of 50 union members headed by Hugh O’Donnell was elected to run the strike. Picket lines were thrown around the mill and the town 24 hours a day. The striking workers were divided into shifts. Ferries were watched. Strangers were challenged and anyone without a satisfactory reason for being in town was ushered out. A steam launch – the Edna — and a number of skiffs were obtained to patrol the Monongahela River.
The Advisory Committee had complete control of Homestead during the strike and went to great lengths to preserve order. Calm prevailed during the first week of the lock-out – but it was a calm before the storm.
At precisely 10:30 p.m. on July 5, 1892,  some 300 employees of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency arrived by rail in Bellevue, near Davis Island Dam, about five miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh. In the late 1800s, the officials of the Pinkerton agency liked to portray the company as simply a private security firm, a supplier of well-trained and well-groomed guards and private detectives. In fact, the Pinkerton Agency was a brutal union-busting operation. Founded in 1850 by Scottish immigrant Alan Pinkerton, the company supplied businesses with strikebreakers, thugs, spies to infiltrate unions -- and even agent provocateurs to manufacture “evidence” against union activists. The decision of the Carnegie Steel Corporation to hire “the Pinks” to force open the Homestead Works turned out to be a fateful one.
The Pinkerton agents were greeted by Joseph H. Gray, the chief deputy to Allegheny County Sheriff William H. McCleary; John Alfred Potter, superintendent of the Homestead Steel Works, and several of his foremen. Gray and Potter escorted the Pinkertons inside two especially equipped barges purchased by Carnegie Steel for the mission to Homestead. One -- the Iron Mountain -- had been outfitted as a dormitory. The other – the Monongahela – included a fully equipped kitchen and a dining room that required 20 waiters.
On board each barge were dozens of cases of provisions and of ammunition and armaments, including 300 pistols and 250 high-powered Winchester rifles. 
Two river tug boats – the Little Bill and the Tide – pulled alongside to begin the journey upriver to Homestead. (The Tide soon became disabled, and the Little Bill had to tow both barges.)
Most of the 300 Pinkerton agents did not even know where they were going. They had answered general advertisements for work at offices of the agency in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
Almost as soon as the barges got underway, their journey had been detected by the steel workers. The Homestead workers had established a sophisticated warning system to detect company moves on either land or water, and the system worked on July 5-6. When the Pinkerton flotilla passed the Smithfield Street bridge near downtown Pittsburgh, a union scout immediately telegraphed union headquarters in Homestead. That telegraph arrived at 2:30 a.m. on July 6. Ten minutes later, the workers sounded a preliminary warning signal.

The Battle Against the Barges

In response, the steel workers dispatched the Edna.  Her crew fired a few stray shots, then signaled back to shore by blowing the whistle. A lookout at the Homestead light works then yanked the giant whistle there. Soon, every engine in town sounded the alarm. A messenger also rode through the streets on a horse letting everyone know that an attack was imminent.  
Thousands of men, women and children raced to the steel works and the river bank. By the time the crowd reached the riverbank, it was 4 a.m., and day was breaking. The crowd was keeping pace as the barges moved past the town and began the approach to the wharf of the Carnegie Steel Company. The charging throng of town folk – including hundreds of girls and women, some carrying babies as well as guns – came to an abrupt stop at a barbed wire fence separating company property from Homestead proper.
The fence had been deliberately extended to the low water mark of the Monongahela River in order to deny land access to the wharf. When the crowd saw that the Little Bill was preparing to run the two barges aground at the company landing place, the strongest men stepped forward and tore down the fence. The crowd swarmed across the mill yard and onto the wharf.
As a tall Pinkerton agent paced the deck of the Monongahela, high above him on shore, hundreds of women, many of them the wives of Eastern European steel workers, hurled insults, shook their fists, and threw stones down at the Pinkertons.
Full-scale firefight

Hundreds of armed men and women guarded the steep embankment overlooking the landing site. Hundreds more were on their way. Despite this, Captain Frederick H. Heinde of the Pinkertons decided to try to seize control of the Homestead Works. After several Pinkertons lowered a gangplank, gun fire broke out. While it has never been established who fired first, the Pinkertons interpreted the first shots as a general signal to open fire. They fired volley after volley into the crowd of workers. The Homestead workers responded. For about 10 minutes, a full-scale firefight took place.
Three steel workers died as a result of that first engagement. At least nine more were wounded. One Pinkerton detective was mortally wounded, and a dozen others were badly hurt.
At about 8 a.m., the Pinkertons mounted a second attempt to leave the barges, move up the embankment, and take the steel works. In that firefight, four more workers died. The list of the most serious casualties suffered in the first four hours of the fighting on July 6 included a cross-section of the Homestead work force’s different ethnic groups. One of the workers who gave his life was a native-born American who had served in the Union Army in the Civil War (and been wounded at Gettysburg). The others were immigrants from England, Germany, Wales, and Slovakia.
At about 8 a.m., the tug boat left the scene, headed to a hospital with the Pinkerton wounded. This left the two barges stranded. Many of the Pinkerton recruits hid under bunks and tables, donned life jackets, and generally gave way to despair.
The battle did not end until 5 p.m. when the surrender of the Pinkerton men was finally arranged by local officials. The Pinkerton agents were marched by the workers from the barges through the mill and to the borough’s Opera House. Then they were sent to Pittsburgh, where the officials broke their promise to hold the Pinkertons for trial on murder charges (and instead simply released them).
Within days of repulsing the Pinkertons, the workers of Homestead were attacked by a different force. On July 10, Gov. Robert E. Pattison changed his position and ordered Major General George R. Snowden to assemble the National Guard of Pennsylvania – 8,000 men – and move to Homestead.
Carnegie Steel contacted employment agencies all over the country and offered special bonuses and railroad tickets to Pittsburgh to skilled workers from the eastern United States. The Pennsylvania National Guard began escorting these replacement workers into the Homestead works.

Court System Used Against Workers

While the use of replacement labor hurt the strike, the company understood that it could not operate with inexperienced replacements for long. Their work was not good enough. Carnegie needed its original work force back. So, the company moved on parallel tracks. At the same time that it advertised for replacement workers all over the country, it also used the courts to attack the strikers.
On July 18, seven strike leaders were charged with the murder of a Pinkerton detective. On September 22, a grand jury returned 167 true bills against the Homestead workers. There were six different indictments: three for murder; two for aggravated riots; and one for conspiracy. A charge of treason was even brought.
In his charge to the Grand Jury of Allegheny County, Judge Edward Paxson of the State Supreme Court claimed that the cause of the turmoil at Homestead was “the addition of large numbers of foreigners to our laboring population.”
In all, about 185 separate indictments were issued against the strike leaders. Every leader of the strike was arrested for something. However, not a single worker was found guilty by a jury. Still, the ultimate legal victories were very costly to the strikers. The leadership of the strike was forced to devote a considerable amount of time to legal defense. The funds of the strikers were drained by legal expenses. Unable to come up with bail money, many of the strikers had to go into hiding.
With 1,600 men on the relief rolls, the strike costing the union $10,000 a week, and outside contributions dwindling, by mid-October, the Homestead workers knew their situation was grim.

The Motion Passes

The Homestead lodges of the Amalgamated Association met for their weekly meeting on November 20, 1892. No more than one-third of the 800 members were present. A motion was made to declare the strike off and the Homestead mill open. It passed 101-91.
Some of the strikers were given work at vastly reduced wages. Many were turned away.
As a result of the defeat, men who had earned $4 for an 8-hour day were forced to work 12 hours for half that amount. The eight-hour day disappeared in the steel industry after the Homestead strike. By the beginning of 1894, the 12-hour shift became the rule in the Carnegie mills, and others soon followed.
Up to the time of the Homestead strike, few of the mills represented by the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers made their employees work on Sundays. After the Homestead strike, Sunday work became common.
The defeat at Homestead spelled the end of unionism at Carnegie and – for 40 years – the end of unionism in the entire steel industry. From 1892 onward, not a single union man was ever employed in a Carnegie mill.
The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers continued to exist, but it was shattered. It was not until the 1930s that a union would organize steel workers again.

Homestead’s Lessons

Labor can be proud of how the Homestead workers and their families fought together so bravely. But our pride in the Carnegie Steel workers’ courage should not blind us to the fact that in 1892 they lacked the organization they needed. The craft union at the Homestead Works represented only a minority of the workers in the mill. It was woefully inadequate to accomplish what needed to be done. The Battle of Homestead showed how labor needs to change its forms of organization when the situation changes.
For years before the Battle of Homestead, Andrew Carnegie had presented himself as a friend of the working man. On July 5, 1892, as the Pinkerton agents were headed to Homestead, Carnegie was far away. He was being cheered in Aberdeen, Scotland. He had gone there to open the library that he was giving that city. Aberdeen granted him “the freedom of the city” and he was praised lavishly by local officials for his philanthropy.
Carnegie spent the night of July 5, 1892 in Aberdeen at the Haddo House hotel, where he received a telegram from Pittsburgh informing him of the confrontation at Homestead. He continued with his vacation plans and left on July 6 for Rannoch Lodge, a retreat in Scotland’s central highlands so isolated that it could be reached only by private carriage. The lake and nearby streams provided Carnegie with a beautiful setting to pursue one of his favorite hobbies: fishing.
On July 8, an enterprising reporter finally tracked Carnegie down and asked his opinion of the confrontation at Homestead. He refused to talk. The next day, he began what today we would call a “spin” campaign. He said that he was “grieved” by the “news of the disaster” but declined to discuss “the merits or demerits of the case.” This attempt to appear above the fray was completely dishonest, given that Carnegie had instructed Frick to get rid of the union and had given him full authority to do as he saw fit. In fact, in response to the first news from Homestead, Carnegie cabled Frick: “All anxiety gone since you stand firm. Never employ one of these rioters. Let grass over works. Must not fail now.”
If we learn nothing else from the Battle of Homestead, we should take to heart the lesson that the laboring class must rely on its own efforts. We must never assume that some “goodhearted” millionaire will take care of us. We cannot expect the government to be a neutral third party in the battles between labor and the giant corporations. We cannot count on the courts to deliver justice of their own accord.
If we always keep in mind those lessons from 1892, we will be able to say what one publication said shortly after the Homestead workers returned to work. The New Nation pointed out that the industrial dispute at Homestead had ended, but “its soul goes marching on. The shots fired that July morning at the Pinkerton barges, like the shots fired at Lexington … were ‘heard round the world.’”


The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.

Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.

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