July 6 In Labor History: Shot Some Pinkertons In Homestead, Just To Watch Them Die
On July 6, 1892, in one of the Gilded Age's most notorious anti-labor acts of violence, 300 Pinkerton detectives, working for Andrew Carnegie's Homestead Steel, cracked down on thousands of strikers, leading to a gunfight that killed three Pinkertons and seven strikers.
Steelworkers lived hard lives in the late 19th century. Carnegie saw himself as a benevolent employer. He's more famous for his post-retirement charities, trying to assuage his guilty conscious by building libraries. During his career as an industrialist, he theoretically believed workers should have a chance to improve themselves — so long as that didn't get in the way of efficiency of course. Carnegie had even given public statements about workers' right to unionize. Despite Carnegie's rhetoric about the self-made man (which the Scottish immigrant himself undoubtedly was), when the rubber met the road, he was as willing to crush his workers as the most ruthless Gilded Age capitalists.
The 1892 Homestead strike was the latest in a long history of battles between Carnegie and unions that dated back to a strike in 1867 when he tried to reduce puddlers' wages. Over and over, Carnegie and his fellow steel employers sought to throw workers out of a job when they fought for the dignity a union can bring; in 1874, Carnegie forced local store owners to not advance strikers credit so they would be starved back to work.
But these steelworkers had some success improving their lives during the late 1880s. In 1889, Homestead workers under the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers struck and won wage gains for the next three years. The AA was a force in western Pennsylvania throughout the 1880s, beginning in 1881, when it organized of the Bessemer Steelworks in Homestead. It then went on to Carnegie in 1882, where it managed to beat down Homestead over yellow-dog contracts, which are contracts that make not joining a union a condition of employment. It continued fighting for worker rights through the successful 1889 action. That contract ended in 1892.
Rather than negotiate with the workers again, but also a personal coward who did not want bad attention, Carnegie left for a trip to his native Scotland and left the situation to his right-hand man, the loathsome Henry Clay Frick. Carnegie wanted the union crushed; he believed it got in the way of efficiency. Frick, a man who had no sympathy with working-class people, refused to negotiate in good faith with the workers. Carnegie gave Frick carte blanche to deal with the union in any way he liked. Frick despised unions. He once personally evicted a striker from company housing by throwing him in a creek.
The American economy began to shutter in 1892. The boom and bust cycle of the Gilded Age was nearing the biggest bust in American history up to that time, the Panic of 1893, the next year. Steel prices began to decline. Carnegie and Frick decided that destroying the union would make up for their lost profits. Workers asked for a wage increase; Frick came back with an offer of a 22 percent decrease.
Carnegie workers responded by hanging Frick in effigy, though not Carnegie. Frick began locking out workers on June 28 and by the last day of the contract, June 30, the entire workforce was locked out. The workers united to keep out scabs, but Frick called in the Pinkertons to bust the strike.
In part, the Declaration of the Strike said:
"The employees in the mill of Messrs. Carnegie, Phipps & Co., at Homestead, Pa., have built there a town with its homes, its schools and its churches; have for many years been faithful co-workers with the company in the business of the mill; have invested thousands of dollars of their savings in said mill in the expectation of spending their lives in Homestead and of working in the mill during the period of their efficiency. . . . "Therefore, the committee desires to express to the public as its firm belief that both the public and the employees aforesaid have equitable rights and interests in the said mill which cannot be modified or diverted without due process of law; that the employees have the right to continuous employment in the said mill during efficiency and good behavior without regard to religious, political or economic opinions or associations; that it is against public policy and subversive of the fundamental principles of American liberty that a whole community of workers should be denied employment or suffer any other social detriment on account of membership in a church, a political party or a trade union; that it is our duty as American citizens to resist by every legal and ordinary means the unconstitutional, anarchic and revolutionary policy of the Carnegie Company, which seems to evince a contempt [for] public and private interests and a disdain [for] the public conscience. . . ."
Workers believed because they had worked in the mill, they had some property rights to it. Their job was part of the property of the mill and they owned that job. The modern idea of private property owned by capitalists where workers just labor there was not fully accepted in 1892.
To say the least, Frick and Carnegie had no tuck for this more cooperative view of property.
When the Pinkertons arrived early in the morning on July 6, they met an armed force ready to fight for their jobs. For the next 13 hours, the two sides traded gunfire. Eventually, the Pinkertons surrendered, although that really just meant they stopped fighting.
It's important to understood how loathed the Pinkertons were by many Americans in these years and how much we remember them today as the worst people of the era. In the series "Deadwood," for example, the Pinkertons are seen by almost everyone in the town as the ultimate enemy because it meant the capitalists had sent in the goons to destroy their little civilization. This depiction is not far off. Although the company became famous by protecting Abraham Lincoln from assassination in 1861, in the Gilded Age, like the Republican Party as a whole, the Pinkertons turned to pulling out all stops to protect an extreme version of property rights by any means necessary.
With the failure of the Pinkertons to crush the strike, Frick and his henchmen created new tactics to bring down the union. Frick convinced Pennsylvania Governor Robert Pattison to send in the National Guard. In 1892, the National Guard largely existed as a strikebreaking force, so the arrival of troops only strengthened Frick's hand. Frick then evicted strikers from company homes. He had strikers arrested repeatedly so they would have to put up bail they could not afford.
During the episode, the anarchist Alexander Berkman (also famous for being Emma Goldman's lover) walked into Frick's office on July 23 and shot him in the face. Not atypical of anarchist actions, Berkman operated completely outside the auspices of the AA or any other organization. Taking it upon himself to revenge the Pinkerton invasion, he undermined public support for the union and got himself a 22-year prison sentence as well. Leave it to an anarchist to fail to assassinate a surprised capitalist despite being armed. Frick was back at work within a few days.
The strike held for several months, but against unbeatable odds, the steelworkers began slipping away. On November 17, 1892, people began returning to work. The company was glad to let them, blacklisting the leaders and welcoming the rest back into an aggressively non-union shop.
Frick recovered to crush an 1896 attempt to organize Homestead. Homestead remained nonunion for the next 40 years. He remains today one of the most loathed CEOs in American history.
Andrew Carnegie expressed guilt over Homestead. He wrote William Gladstone:
"This is the trial of my life (death's hand excepted). Such a foolish step — contrary to my ideals, repugnant to every feeling of my nature. Our firm offered all it could offer, even generous terms. Our other men had gratefully accepted them. They went as far as I could have wished, but the false step was made in trying to run the Homestead Works with new men. It is a test to which workingmen should not be subjected. 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."
And yeah, that's fine. I hope he felt guilty. Because for all his rhetoric and puritanical religious beliefs, when it came down to giving his workers a fair stake in a system which made him one of the world's richest men, he chose to send in goons and then the National Guard to destroy the union. All the libraries in the world don't make up for that.
After all, I'd argue that the measure of the rich is how they make their money, not what they do with it after its made.
WHY THIS MATTERS TODAY
People often look back at the violent days of the labor movement and say, well, that's a long time ago. And OK, that's not untrue. But as the nation moves, year by year, into an anti-worker state, the conditions that led to Homestead get closer and closer for our workers. In the year of the first coup attempt against a duly elected government in American history, one widely supported by one of our political parties and with a Supreme Court as firmly anti-worker as in 1892, we should question if there would be legal backlash if companies used violence against strikers today. I don't mean to be hyperbolic. I don't think we are at that point. But the New Gilded Age has way too many parallels with the initial Gilded Age for comfort. We need to be concerned about the larger state suppression of unions. Right now, companies don't need to use such tactics because they have such control over workers. As we saw in the attempt to organize the Amazon plant in Alabama, the companies can bombard workers with hours of anti-union propaganda in order that the workers are too scared to choose a union. But as we've also seen with the Republican freakout over low-wage workers having power in the economy because of the enhanced unemployment benefits coming out of the stimulus packages of the last year, they desperately want to use state power to discipline workers and force them back into jobs where they have no power.
Paul Krause, The Battle for Homestead, 1880-1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Paul Kahan, The Homestead Strike: Labor, Violence, and American Industry
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Erik Loomis is Associate Professor of History at the University of Rhode Island. He's the author of A History of America in Ten Strikes (The New Press, 2018).