One of the most infamous clashes between labor and management, the Homestead Strike occurred in 1892 in Pennsylvania. An important event in American labor history, the Homestead Strike remains a sad reminder of the sometimes bloody conflict that accompanied the growth of American labor.
Andrew Carnegie was a famous industrialist who prized education above all else. Arriving in America from his native Scotland at age 13, he began work in a cotton factory. He read voraciously and was hired to work for Pennsylvania Railroad for a monthly salary of $35. In 1870, he entered the burgeoning steel industry, building a steel plant in Homestead, near Pittsburgh. Carnegie’s managements style can be summed up in a famous quote of his regarding running a business: “Watch costs and the profits take care of themselves.”
Englishman Henry Bessemer had developed a refining process for turning large lots of iron into steel, and Carnegie adapted the process for use in the United States. His Homestead steel plant was making record profits at a time when tension between labor and management was growing in the quickly changing world of American industry. The price of a gross ton of rolled steel products dropped from $35 in 1890 to $22 in 1892. Carnegie’s solution was to cut cost--including workers’ wages.
The steel workers at the Homestead plant were members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, one of the strongest unions in the nation. The final year of the union's three-year contract was 1892, and management asked for wage cuts for 325 workers. This followed large pay cuts that had occurred three years earlier. The union refused, and Carnegie instructed the plant manager, Henry Frick, to shut down operations and wait out the workers. Frick announced he would not negotiate with the union but rather with the individual workers. Additionally, he erected a fence around the plant and advertised openly for strikebreakers. The workers responded by establishing 24-hour picketing on rotating shifts and patrolling the river to keep out strikebreakers. Frick called upon the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to break the strike.
The Pinkerton Detective Agency was originally established as a private detective and security agency but was being regularly hired to settle labor conflicts at the end of the 19th century. The Pinkerton Agency was accused of devious methods by labor sympathizers, such as inciting riots. Frick hired 300 Pinkerton agents and attempted to sneak them into the plant via the river.
Before dawn on July 6, tugboats pulling barges filled with Pinkerton agents were spotted by the workers. The agents were met by thousands of strikers and sympathizers who forbade the agents from stepping out of the boats. When they did, gunfire broke out. The agents retreated to their boats, and the fighting lasted for 14 hours. Eventually, the state militia was called in, and the fighting came to a stop. The final number of dead is debated, but it is thought that between seven and 11 workers were killed along with three agents.
The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers was dissolved a few months later in November. Carnegie’s reputation never fully recovered despite the hundreds of millions of dollars he donated to various charities. Carnegie never completely recovered personally either. He wrote in his autobiography, “No pangs remain of any wound received in my business career save that of Homestead."