July 4, 2017
Last night on “Blue Collar Buzz,” we spotlighted the Homestead Lockout. Henry Clay Frick refused his workers the right to come to work and make a living. He forced them to choose between having a job and having a union. The men chose their union and paid as heavy a price as one can imagine for their choice.
Many of us are familiar with the narrative as it is so often told. Frick’s closing of the plant, his refusal to negotiate in good faith, the building of a five foot fence around the plant and the hiring of the infamous Pinkertons to employ their usual tactics of thuggery to intimidate the workers are all fairly common knowledge to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of American labor history. But, sometimes it is the more subtle elements of a story that tell the tale clearly.
For starters, I don’t think we can overemphasize the word- lockout. For decades now, this event has been referred to as the Homestead strike. That particular error may seem trivial to some, but it not only shifts the blame, it also goes to the point that he who controls the conversation, the words, the meta language, very often controls the outcome. If I can frame the question, I am more likely to get the answer I am looking for. (Listen carefully to the wording of the questions the next time a pollster with an obvious agenda disturbs your dinner with a phone call.)
In reality, a lockout is an act of violence. The message is: I am under no obligation to talk to you. I, in no way, will entertain the idea of a negotiation. Therefore, your only option is to submit to my terms or starve. Why? Frick could not negotiate because to do so would be to admit that labor had rights that were equal to capital, and that was a concept completely alien to him. In the world of a robber baron where profit was king and the legacy of British common law supported a view that any act that could be construed as a restraint of trade could also be viewed as a criminal act, Frick was forced to hold his ground and give no quarter.
Also too often glossed over in our rush to get to the “good part” about the gun battle on the Monagohela, is the fact that Carnegie, so often venerated today for his philanthropic acts, even to the point where ironically the name of his foundation often appears as an underwriter for programs aired on the “liberal” PBS, was conveniently out of town when all this occurred. So the man whose name is linked to the bestowal of libraries and concert halls is also the man who told Frick to do whatever he deemed necessary, then cast his line for another trout. The stark reality is that Carnegie was just following through on an age old maxim : “Keep your costs low and the profits will take care of themselves.” In this particular case, giving Frick a free hand in his employment practices was just another way of minimizing his costs. The fact that thousands of lives would be damaged was not a consideration.
Finally, it was the power and might of 9,000 Pennsylvania National Guard troops that finally settled the score in favor of Frick and Carnegie. Rifles and bayonets in the service of state government served the interest of big business and robbed workers of any last vestige of hope that they might resolve issues in their favor. The same people who had created wealth by virtue of their toil were now considered a threat to a stable society, A.K.A. corporate profits.
So, as early as 1892 we see the manipulation of language by corporate elite for the purpose of swaying public opinion. We see an absolutely bizarre way of casting workers and citizens in the role of radicals when they dare to question their treatment at the hands of their employers. We see the shedding of responsibility on the part of CEOs who are figuratively “out of town” while thousands lose their livelihoods. And finally we see a government that is ostensibly for and by the people, use their resources to ensure that corporate profits are maximized.
If we look at the recent treatment of Verizon workers or school bus drivers in juxtaposition to the soaring profits on Wall Street and the growth of uber rich New York City real estate developers, all while our government “for the people” does its level best to strip health care benefits from the neediest among us, we can only conclude that despite the passing of time and a plethora of labor legislation, the American worker is still faced with a robber baron class that refuses to recognize one of the basic tenets of our nation: “all men are created equal [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among them are Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness…” Happy 4th of July to everyone.
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