July 10, 2015
By Bill Hohlfeld
On July 1,1892, thanks to the machinations of Andrew Carnegie and Henry J. Frick, a new business entity came into being. It’s formal name was The Carnegie Steel Company, Limited. It was not by chance that the genesis of this profit making behemoth coincided with the expiration of the contract of Carnegie and his partner with the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, the union that represented the workers in the steel mill at Homestead, Pennsylvania.
At the insistent urging of the vehemently anti-union Frick, Carnegie was persuaded to once again seek profits over people and use the reorganizing of his plant at Homestead, as a means of smashing its union and driving down wages.
The Amalgamated, not unaware of the obstacles they faced- huge pools of unorganized immigrant labor, changes in technology that “deskilled” their trades, laws that were unfriendly to labor, and a shrinking market share of steel production, did its best to make concessions on wages and production level work rules, that they might keep their union. But while Carnegie hid at his summer home in Scotland, Frick declared war on the workers at Homestead. He locked the workers out, fortified the plant with a ten foot fence, refused to recognize or negotiate with the Amalgamated, and sent for the corporate world’s best known mercenary army- the Pinkertons.
Over 4,000 workers retaliated by calling a strike. They and their families then kept a close watch on the plant until the inevitable arrival of the armed Pinkertons by barge on the Monongahela river. Violence, of course, ensued. Gunshots were exchanged for several hours. Workers and guards alike were wounded and killed. Thirteen souls lay dead or dying. The local sheriff wired the governor asking for militia. Pennsylvania’s governor, Robert E. Pattison initially refused to give aid to the Pinkertons, stating that “it is not the purpose of the military to act as police officers.”
The mercenaries, aware of their plight, surrendered and came ashore unarmed.
Unfortunately for them, the anger and the frustration of the Homestead workers at having been abused and threatened was not easily quelled. They set upon the invaders, beat them badly, burned their barges and finally sent them out of town on a train. The workers were in possession of the plant, had beaten back the gun thugs and felt secure in their victory. But, it was to be short lived.
With the media coverage of the time squarely on the side of big business, it did not take long to turn the tide of public opinion against the workers at Homestead. The governor reversed his decision and sent in troops who secured the plant for Carnegie and Frick. By July 12, the union had been smashed. The plant would not enjoy union representation again for more than forty years, until it was reorganized under the auspices of the newly formed Steel Workers Organizing Committee of the CIO.
The violence that took place at Homestead, with its destruction of lives and property as well as the economic hardship that followed for so many of that town’s residents could all have been easily avoided if Andrew Carnegie had remained true to the principle which he set down, in his supposedly progressive treatise, The Gospel of Wealth and which he referred to as the eleventh commandment: “ thou shalt not take thy neighbor’s job.”