It was 115 years ago, just outside the Carnegie Steel works on the west bank of the Monongahela River in Homestead, Pennsylvania. As dawn began to break on that hot July day, you could see the emerging outlines of a massive crowd of striking workers and their families, some 1O,OOO men, women and children waiting anxiously on the riverfront. Several hundred of the men carried rifles, shotguns or pistols, and most of the others brandished sticks, stones or clubs.
Two barges pulled into shore, ignoring warnings from the crowd to back off.
Aboard were 300 men armed with Winchester rifles. The men started down a gang plank, but the first in line was shot at close range. As the others retreated, they were raked with gunfire that killed one and wounded five.
They quickly returned the fire, killing three people on shore, wounding more than 30.
Those shots fired in 1892 were the opening shots of one of the most violent and most significant of the battles that altered for all time the relationship between working people and their employers.
The Homestead strikers lost. But their struggle — their very loss — inspired workers everywhere to demand and to eventually win the vital right to a true voice in determining their conditions of employment. The strikers belonged to what was in 1892 the country’s most powerful union, the 25,000-member Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers. But Carnegie Steel had become probably the country’s most powerful corporation, so dominant in the steel industry it no longer felt a need to bargain with the union.
Carnegie was supposed to negotiate a new union contract in the spring of 1892, but instead announced unilateral Pay cuts of l8 to 26 percent. Then the corporation used the violent protests raised by union members as a pretext to close the Homestead works just before the old contract expired.
Carnegie planned to reopen after that with a non-union workforce, despite the strike called by union members to demand a new contract.
That’s what brought the 300 riflemen up river from Pittsburgh. They were hired from the Pinkerton Detective Agency, a favorite of strike-breaking employers, to prepare the way for reopening the mill, which had been surrounded for a week by armed strikers.
Carnegie could not rely on local law enforcement officials, since Homestead was controlled by the strikers. No one could enter the town without permission of the union, which had hundreds of guards posted on the outskirts and at the mill. They easily kept the sheriff and his 11 deputies from breaking through their picket line and into the mill.
Carnegie expected the far more numerous Pinkerton agents to make it through.
They were to occupy the mill while others set up sleeping and eating facilities for the strikebreakers the company was recruiting from among desperately poor immigrants in Philadelphia, St. Louis and Boston, and then shepherd them in past the strikers massed outside.
But the strikers, crouching behind piles of steel, pig iron and scrap in the mill yard, kept the agents’ barges under steady fire. The “Pinks” returned the fire, but could neither come ashore nor escape down the river.
After 13 hours, the Pinkerton men surrendered. Three had died in the battle, as had seven strikers. Scores on both sides had been wounded.
Six days later, Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Pattison ordered the state militia to occupy Homestead and protect the strikebreakers who would be put to work at the mill. The strike and sympathy strikes at other Carnegie plants continued until November, but practically speaking it was all over once the militia marched into town.
The union lost more than a strike. It spent virtually its entire treasury supporting strikers and successfully defending them against attempts by Carnegie to have them convicted of murder and other crimes. Its leaders were blacklisted from ever working in the steel industry again.
Within three years, the membership of the once potent Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers was cut in half. By 1910, the union had no members at all. Unionism had been eradicated from the entire steel industry, and though the output of steel mills had doubled and the number of working hours had increased to a standard of 10 to 12 a day, pay barely increased. In some mills, it actually decreased.
It was a severe blow to organized labor, which was being challenged by dozens of corporate giants in the country’s other rapidly growing industrial fields. Yet the Homestead strike laid the essential groundwork that led to mass industrial unionization and the granting of union rights to virtually all American workers in the 1930s.
Working people throughout the country raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help support the strikers and the widows and orphans of those killed by men described in a typical union resolution as “hired assassins … the hired thugs of the many-times millionaire Andrew Carnegie.” They held mass protest meetings to denounce Carnegie, the Pinkerton agency and the government that aided and abetted them. They demanded equal rights in dealing with employers.
The bloody struggles of 1892 had demonstrated to working people the great strength and determination of those who would deny them equality, but also the strength and determination that their forces could muster. It showed them what must be done and gave them hope that ultimately they could do it.
Copyright (c) 2007 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based journalist who has covered labor issues for five decades. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com