The Homestead strike, 1892 - Jeremy Brecher

State militia sent to break the Homestead strike
State militia sent to break the Homestead strike

Jeremy Brecher's detailed history of the 1892 strike of workers at the Carnegie Steel Company against the eventually successful attempt of the employer to break their union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steelworkers.

Submitted by Steven. on June 12, 2013

If you enjoyed this book, please purchase Strike! by Jeremy Brecher here.

Late in 1892, Henry Clay Frick, the chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company, wrote a letter to Andrew Carnegie. In it he complained, "The mills have never been able to turn out the product they should owing to being held back by the Amalgamated men."1

The Amalgamated men were a small number of highly-skilled steelworkers who belonged to the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, the strongest trade union the country had ever seen. The Amalgamated was affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, a loose confederation of the exclusive trade unions of highly-skilled workers against which Powderly had inveighed. A hostile historian described the power the skilled steelworkers held over the actual process of production at Carnegie's Homestead Works near Pittsburgh:

The method of apportioning the work, of regulating the turns, of altering the machinery, in short, every detail of working the great plant, was subject to the interference of some busybody representing the Amalgamated Association. . . . The heats of a turn were designated, as were the weights of the various charges constituting a heat. The product per worker was limited; the proportion of scrap that might be used in running a furnace was fixed; the quality of pig-iron was stated; the puddlers' use of brick and fire clay was prohibited; nor might one lend his tools to another.2

This power was exercised by committees in each department.

When investigator John Fitch inquired years later, he was told by both older workmen and a prominent Carnegie official that the union had actually run the Homestead Works.3

In 1889, Carnegie had moved to break the union's power, proposing a twenty-five percent wage reduction and individual contracts for each worker-putting an end to collective bargaining. The workers struck. The company hired detectives and tried to bring in strikebreakers, but was defeated by mass picketing. As Frick described it later:

The posse taken up by the sheriff-something over 100 men-were not permitted to land on our property; were driven off with threats of bodily harm, and it looked as if there was going to be great destruction of life and property.4

In the face of sympathetic strike movements against other Carnegie plants, its subsidiary, the H.C. Frick Coke Company, and the railroads handling Carnegie products, the company backed down and signed a three-year contract with the Amalgamated, to expire in 1892.

The contract, however, was clearly only a truce, for the Carnegie Company grew more determined than ever to eliminate the union. David Brody, in his Steelworkers in America: The Non-Union Era points out that the great objective of the steel masters was to drive down costs. "The maximization of labor savings required complete freedom from union interference."5 As a Carnegie partner put it, "The Amalgamated placed a tax on improvements, therefore the Amalgamated had to go."6

In January, 1892, the company proposed a new wage scale that admittedly would reduce Amalgamated men's wages eighteen percent, tipping off the workers that another conflict was approaching. Early in May, Carnegie drafted a statement which read:

These Works having been consolidated with the Edgar Thomson and Duquesne, and other mills, there has been forced upon this Firm the question whether its Works are to be run 'Union' or 'Non-Union.' As the vast majority of our employees are Non-Union, the Firm has decided that the minority must give place to the majority. These works, therefore, will be necessarily Non-Union after the expiration of the present agreement. . . . This action is not taken in any spirit of hostility to labor organizations, but every man will see that the firm cannot run Union and Non-Union."7

Frick, however, understood that he could break the union without making this the ostensible issue of the conflict, simply by making impossible demands. A Congressional committee later concluded that Frick was

opposed to the Amalgamated Association and its methods, and hence had no anxiety to contract with his laborers through that organization. . . this is the true reason why he appeared to them as autocratic and uncompromising in his demands.8

Following Carnegie's advice, Frick began his preparations for the anticipated strike by stepping up production to record levels. He ordered the construction of a great fence, twelve feet high and three miles long, around the works. Three-inch holes were bored at shoulder height every twenty-five feet, and the fence was topped with three strands of barbed wire. It was quickly dubbed "Fort Frick" and immortalized in verse:

There stands today with great pretense
Enclosed within a whitewashed fence
A wondrous change of great import,
The mills transformed into a fort.9

Finally, Frick wrote to Robert Pinkerton of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency:

We will want 300 guards for service at our Homestead mills as a measure of precaution against interference with our plan to start operation of the works July 6th, 1892.

The only trouble we anticipate is that an attempt will be made to prevent such of our men with whom we will by that time have made satisfactory arrangements from going to work, and possibly some demonstration of violence upon the part of those whose places have been filled, or most likely by an element which usually is attracted to such scenes for the purpose of stirring up trouble. . . .

These guards should be assembled at Ashtabula, Ohio, not later than the morning of July 5th, when they may be taken by train to McKee's Rocks, or some other point upon the Ohio River below Pittsburgh, where they can be transferred to boats and landed within the enclosure of our premises at Homestead. We think absolute secrecy essential in the movement of these men.10

(The Pinkerton Agency was ready, able and willing to provide the men. In the previous decades it had provided its services for management in seventy major labor disputes, and its 2,000 active agents and 30,000 reserves totalled more than the standing army the nation.11 )

Frick issued an ultimatum that unless the union accepted his terms by June 24th, the company would deal with the men only as individuals. Four days later, the company closed down departments where 800 men worked; by July 2nd it had laid off the entire work force. The battle was on in earnest.

In preparation for the strike, the Amalgamated had formed an "Advisory Committee" of five delegates from each of its eight lodges. Since the Amalgamated Association included only 750 of the 3,800 workers at Homestead, the Advisory Committee called on the rest to support the strike. Three thousand workers packed into the Opera House and voted overwhelmingly that everyone would strike - for the semi-skilled and unskilled feared that their wages would be reduced as well. The Advisory Committee then circulated the following statement:

The Committee has, after mature deliberation, decided to organize their forces on a truly military basis. The force of four thousand men has been divided into three divisions or watches, each of these divisions is to devote eight hours of the twenty-four to the task of watching the plant.

The Commanders of these divisions are to have as assistants eight captains composed of one trusted man from each of the eight local lodges.

These Captains will report to the Division Commanders, who in turn will receive the orders of the Advisory Committee. During their hours of duty these Captains will have personal charge of the most important posts, i.e., the river front, the water gates and pumps, the railway stations, and the main gates of the plant. The girdle of pickets will file reports to the main headquarters every half hour, and so complete and detailed is the plan of campaign that in ten minutes' time the Committee can communicate with the men at any given point within a radius of five miles. In addition to all this, there will be held in reserve a force of 800 Slavs and Hungarians. The brigade of foreigners will be under the command of two Hungarians and two interpreters.12

Military preparations began at once. Frick's plan for a naval landing of Pinkerton men had apparently become known to the Amalgamated men, for they chartered a paddle steamer, the Edna, fitted with steam whistles to give the alarm. Day and night it cruised the Monongahela, supported by an armada of fifty two-man skiffs. Every road leading to Homestead was blockaded.

Armed guards surrounded the railroad depots. Sentries patrolled the waterfront and watched from the peaks of surrounding hills. A communications system was created, using flags, skyrockets and a steam whistle, with the telegraph at the strike headquarters. The picket line grew steadily, until 1,000 men were patrolling ten miles of the river on both sides.

Meanwhile, the Advisory Committee took over authority in the town. It directed the running of the gas, water, and electric stations. It shut the saloons, kept the peace, and issued ad hoc laws. When eleven deputy sheriffs arrived to occupy the works, they were surrounded by 1,000 pickets and told, "No deputy will ever go in there alive."13 The Edna then politely ferried the deputies back to Pittsburgh. When Sheriff McCleary of Allegheny County visited himself, the Advisory Committee gave him a guided tour of the plant and suggested that he deputize 500 strikers to guard it and keep out trespassers. He refused. The Advisory Committee offered to let fifty deputies take over the works - fearing the illegality of its own acts. But the Sheriff was unable to raise a posse, for nobody in Allegheny County wanted to fight the Homestead workers. The few men he was able to recruit refused to bear arms, interfere with picketing or escort strikebreakers. The Sheriff was powerless.

By late June, the Homestead workers had been informed by supporters in Chicago and New York that Pinkerton guards were on the way. The guards arrived five miles down river from Pittsburgh on the night of July 5th and boarded the two barges that had been prepared for them. The union was immediately informed by telegraph that several hundred strangers had arrived. As the barges passed Pittsburgh somewhat after 3 a.m., a. union lookout wired headquarters, "Watch the river. Steamer with barges left here."14 The river patrol was intensified, and a union skiff almost run down by the Pinkerton's tug fired revolvers at the barges. A little before 4 a.m., the Advisory Committee pulled the steam whistle with the signal indicating a river landing threatened, and a mounted sentry burst into Homestead shouting, "The Pinkertons are coming!"15 Workers and their families piled from their beds.

By the time the barges approached the landing, the crowd that met them numbered 10,000. Several hundred carried carbines., rifles, shotguns, pistols and revolvers, most of the rest sticks, stones and nailed clubs.

The Pinkertons, armed with Winchester repeaters, threw out a gangplank and began to land. "Don't step off that boat," someone yelled from the jeering crowd. One striker lay down on the gangplank. When the first Pinkerton detective tried to shove him aside, he pulled a revolver and shot the detective through the thigh, knocking him over backward. Gunfire instantly raked the Pinkertons, killing one and wounding five. A force of additional Pinkertons rushed on deck and began firing steadily into the crowd, hitting over thirty and killing at least three. The fire from the crowd quickly drove the Pinkertons back below decks. When they tried again to land a few hours later, four more were shot down instantly and the attempt was abandoned.

The strikers, joined by large numbers of armed supporters from other towns, now tried to find a way to drive the Pinkertons out of the barges. First they built barricades of steel and pig iron from which they could fire with safety on the barges. Skiffs swarmed around the barges, firing at point-blank range. Half-pound sticks of dynamite were hurled onto the barges, blowing holes in the sides but failing to sink them. A twenty-pound brass cannon used for holiday celebrations and a smaller one residing in a veterans' hall were wheeled out and trained on the barges. Workers flooded the river around them with oil, but were unable to set them afire. A flaming raft was floated toward them, but the current carried it past. A natural gas main was directed toward the barges and the gas ignited with Fourth of July firecrackers, but only a small explosion was triggered.

By the end of the day the Pinkertons were faced with a mutiny of their own men. Most of those on the barges were not regular company detectives but guards hired under false pretenses, then shipped to Homestead at gunpoint much against their wills. Many were wounded; all were terrified; the July heat in the barges was unbearable; the chance of escape was nil. Under these conditions, the men voted almost unanimously to surrender. They were marched out, disarmed, and made to run a bloody gauntlet in which all were injured, many seriously. The crowd, enraged by the deaths it had suffered, initially demanded that "Not one must escape alive!"16 The Advisory Committee, fearing the public reaction to a massacre, finally persuaded the workers to let the Pinkertons go.

The battle electrified the nation. On the strikers' side, forty were shot and nine killed. On the Pinkertons', twenty were shot, seven died, and nearly three hundred were injured running the gauntlet.17 Reporters from all over the country-and even other countries - poured into Homestead. A song, "Father Was Killed by the Pinkerton Men," became an overnight hit.

For several days, the strikers held the works unchallenged.

The Sheriff, with no effective force of his own, appealed again and again to Governor Pattison for the militia. Pattison stalled, stating "I am of the opinion that there would not have been a drop of blood shed if the proposition had been accepted to let the locked-out men guard the premises."18 But pressure on him mounted, and finally he ordered the militia to Homestead. They arrived July 12th.

In the wake of the Great Upheaval of 1877, the Pennsylvania militia had been reorganized and brought to a high state of efficiency. By 1892 it included well over 8,000 officers and men, well armed with Springfield .45's and Gatling guns. The strikers at first wanted to oppose the militia, but the Advisory Committee persuaded them to welcome it instead. As the troops marched off the train, they were met by a welcoming committee, complete with band. A spokesman for the Advisory Committee stepped up and said, "On the part of the Amalgamated Association, I wish to say that after suffering an attack of illegal authority, we are glad to have the legal authority of the State here."

General George Snowden, in command of the troops, replied: "I do not recognize your association, sir. I recognize no one but the citizens of this city. We have come here to restore law and order and they are already restored."19 The General's conception of law and order soon became apparent. That same day he was asked, "General, is it intended to use your troops for the protection of non-union men?" Snowden answered, "The gates are open and you may enter if the company permits it."20

Strikers maintained massive armed picket lines around the works, but the company began ferrying in small groups of strikebreakers by barge. The Guard prevented retaliation. At first the militiamen fraternized with the strikers, but Snowden quickly put an end to it by forbidding his men to consort with workers or enter town without an officer. "Pennsylvanians can hardly appreciate the actual communisn of these people. They believe the works are theirs quite as much as Carnegie's," Snowden reported.21

In response to the killings and the militia, the strike soon spread to the rest of the Carnegie works in the Pittsburgh area. At the Union Iron Mills the men declared July 14th that they would not return to work until the Homestead dispute was settled. The company gradually resumed production there with strikebreakers.

The next day, workers at the Beaver Fall mills refused to work until the company opened negotiations with the Homestead strikers. Frick declared a lockout and the strike continued for four months.

Workers at Duquesne joined the Amalgamated and struck a week later, following appeals from the Homestead strikers. The State militia in August escorted repairmen, mechanics, and other strikebreakers into the plant, suppressed a riot, and allowed production to resume.

On July 16th, the company posted a notice giving Homestead workers until July 21st to apply for rehiring:

It is our desire to retain in our service all of our employees whose past record is satisfactory, and who did not take part in the attempts which have been made to interfere with our right to manage our business.22

But not a single one of the locked-out men applied.

The company was forced to other tactics. Its law firm brought warrants for murder against leading Advisory Committee members. At least 160 other strikers were charged with lesser crimes.

They were no sooner acquitted than the entire Advisory Committee was re-arrested for treason against the State of Pennsylvania. The Chief Justice of the State personally charged the grand jury:

. . . when a large number of men arm and organize themselves by divisions and companies, appoint officers, and engage in a common purpose to defy the law, to resist its officers and to deprive any portion of their fellow citizens of the rights to which they are entitled. . . it is a levying of war against the State, and the offense is treason. . . The men had no further demand upon its property than has a domestic servant upon the household goods of his employer when he is discharged. . .23

In the end, no Pittsburgh jury ever found a striker guilty on any charge. But the prosecutions served their purpose nonetheless. They tied up enormous funds in bail and legal costs. After bail money ran out they kept large parts of the strike leadership in jail awaiting trial. And by all accounts they confused and demoralized the strikers at Homestead. The Amalgamated men had considered themselves conservative, patriotic citizens - most were solid Republicans - defending their rights against Frick's private army, the Pinkertons. The trials made them doubt the legitimacy of what they themselves had done. Were they in fact just a murderous, treasonous mob?

The Carnegie Company continued bringing strikebreakers into Homestead, but had great difficulty recruiting the scarce, highly skilled steelworkers most needed to resume operations. In many cases, strikebreakers had to be virtually shanghaied. Fifty-six men hired in Cincinnati, for example, were offered easy work and good pay at another Carnegie steelworks. They boarded a train and only after the doors and windows were locked did the armed guards tell them their real destination. They battled with the guards and forced the doors; only twenty-one remained by the time they reached Homestead. Once there, a strikebreaker reported,

We were made prisoners in the works and guarded like convicts. The more ignorant were told by the foreman that if they ventured outside the union men would shoot them like dogs. . . . At least half of them are sick from heat, bad water and poor food.24

A local paper reported that desertions were occurring "at such a lively rate. . . as to threaten to depopulate the mill in a week."25 Strikers threw pamphlets from a train into the works, promising good treatment and free train fare home for deserting strikebreakers. There followed a grand rush for the exit, and company officials were powerless to stop a large number from leaving. Nonetheless, by September nearly every department of the plant was running, albeit poorly.

The strike held solid for four months. Frick wrote Carnegie, "The firmness with which these strikers hold on is surprising to everyone."26 But with the company restoring production and winter coming on, morale finally began to decline. On November 18th, the unskilled workers asked to be released from their strike pledge. The Amalgamated agreed, and two days later called off the strike. The men returned to work as individuals-with the leaders blacklisted forever. Frick cabled Carnegie:

Strike officially declared off yesterday. Our victory is now complete and most gratifying. Do not think we will ever have any serious labor trouble again.27

In the wake of the Homestead defeat, the once-powerful Amalgamated Association was practically driven out of the steel industry. By 1895 it retained but half its pre-Homestead membership, little of it in steel. The steel masters had created a seemingly impenetrable arsenal of weapons against unionism - an arsenal we shall meet again in 1919.

In the final analysis, the strikers were defeated by the new technology of the steel industry. In earlier days, it had been impossible to run the mills without the skilled men of the Amalgamated, and so all that was necessary to defeat an employer was "to withhold our skills from them until such time as they agree."28 But with the increasing mechanization of the mills, employers could start up with new men and only a nucleus of experienced workers.

The new giant corporations with many plants could easily shift work from a struck plant to an un struck one and thus be relatively unscathed by a strike. Only a movement embracing all steelworkers, skilled and unskilled, and supported by workers in allied industries would have stood a chance against a corporation as powerful as the Carnegie Company. As we shall see, many workers - especially on the railroads - drew this lesson. But the Amalgamated - like the rest of the A.F.L. - refused to adapt to the new realities of industrial America.

The employers made substantial gains from their defeat of unionism in the Homestead strike. They were enabled without resistance to reduce labor costs and introduce new machinery to increase productivity. In 1897 a Carnegie executive reported "a marked reduction in the number of men employed." The Homestead Works "can now be run full with about 2,900 men," a twenty-five percent decrease since 1892.29 David Brody points out that In the two decades after 1890, the furnace worker's productivity tripled in exchange for an income rise of one-half; the steelworker's output doubled in exchange for an income rise of one-fifth [much of these wage increases merely compensated for inflation]. At bottom, the remarkable cost reduction of American steel manufacture rested on those figures.

The accomplishment was possible only with a labor force powerless to oppose the decisions of the steel men.30

In the depression year of 1893, wages in iron and steel fell an average of twenty-five percent. With the union smashed, the cuts went practically unopposed. A Carnegie official, announcing wage cuts, stated,

With this new scale in force the firm will be in a position to compete more successfully than ever before and will probably have a material advantage over many of its competitors in cost sheets.31

In the period from 1892 to 1907, the daily earnings of highly skilled plate-mill workers at Homestead shrank by one-fifth, while their hours increased from eight to twelve.32

But the most important result of the Homestead strike was its effect on American workers. Secretary of the Treasury Charles Foster, campaigning in Ohio, reported "trouble among laboring men."

"They were talking about Homestead, and about Carnegie being too rich, while they were poor."33 The bloody battle of July 6th stirred a deep sense of identification in workers throughout the country. For example, 90,000 workers in Chicago had celebrated a "Homestead Day" and raised $40,000 for the strikers. Other contributions had poured into Homestead. The defeat of the nation's most powerful trade union at the hands of a private army, the state militia, and the Carnegie company, started workers everywhere on a search for new solutions and a broader solidarity.

Excerpted from Strike! by Jeremy Brecher

  • 1 Frick to Carnegie, Oct. 31, 1892, quoted in David Brody, Steelworkers in America, The Nonunion Era (N.Y.: Harper & Row, Torchbooks ed., 1969), p.53.
  • 2 Cited in Leon Wolff, Lockout, The Story of the Homestead Strike of 1892: A Study of Violence, Unionism, and the Carnegie Steel Empire (N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 41-2.
  • 3 Brody, p. 53.
  • 4 U.S. House of Representatives, Employment of Pinkerton Detectives, 52nd Cong., 2d Sess., Report No. 2447 (Wash.: GPO, 1893), p. 23, cited in Samuel Yellin, American Labor Struggles (N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1936), p.84.
  • 5 Brody, p. 52.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 54.
  • 7 Carnegie (May 1892) cited in Wolff, p. 80.
  • 8 Employment of Pinkerton Detectives, p. 23, cited in Yellin, p. 80.
  • 9 "The Fort That Frick Built," quoted in Wolff, p. 85.
  • 10 Frick to Pinkerton (June 25, 1892), cited in Wolff, p. 86.
  • 11 Wolff, p. 69.
  • 12 Ibid., p. 90.
  • 13 Ibid., p. 96.
  • 14 Ibid., p. 105.
  • 15 Ibid., p. 106.
  • 16 Ibid., p. 122.
  • 17 Ibid., p. 130.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 131.
  • 19 Ibid.. p. 150.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 151.
  • 21 Ibid., p. 164.
  • 22 AP dispatch, Terre Haute Evening Gazette, July 16, 1892, cited in Yellin, p.93.
  • 23 Judge Paxson, cited in Wolff, p. 213.
  • 24 Wolff, p. 206.
  • 25 Ibid., p. 205.
  • 26 Frick to Carnegie, cited in Wolff, p. 209.
  • 27 Ibid., Nov. 21, 1892, in Wolff, p. 225.
  • 28 Brody, p. 58. 97
  • 29 Ibid., p. 28.
  • 30 Ibid., pp. 48-9.
  • 31 Ibid., p. 42.
  • 32 Ibid., pp. 45-6.
  • 33 Foster, cited in Henry David, "Upheaval at Homestead," in America in Crisis, Daniel Aaron, ed. (N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), p. 167.