Frick’s Fracas–Henry Frick Makes His Case Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the 1892 strike at the Homestead Steel Works, a facility of Carnegie Steel, company chair Henry Clay Frick offered his thoughts on the tense standoff between the company and the plant’s striking employees in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post. Frick argued for reduced wages for employees and defended Carnegie’s employee policies. He also railed against the strikers’ tactics, defending his use of private security agents from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and calling upon the state of Pennsylvania to intervene in the strike.

Summary Overview

During the 1892 strike at the Homestead Steel Works, a facility of Carnegie Steel, company chair Henry Clay Frick offered his thoughts on the tense standoff between the company and the plant’s striking employees in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post. Frick argued for reduced wages for employees and defended Carnegie’s employee policies. He also railed against the strikers’ tactics, defending his use of private security agents from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and calling upon the state of Pennsylvania to intervene in the strike.

Defining Moment

The late nineteenth century was marked by strong growth in the US economy, spurred in large part by the expansion of the American railways. Major enterprises such as the Carnegie Steel Company thrived, generating massive profits even during occasional economic downturns. This growth and prosperity was made possible by the country’s working class, and a vast majority of American laborers worked long hours in often hazardous environments at low wages. In light of these inadequate working conditions, labor unions also experienced significant growth and activity during this period of economic growth, as members sought better wages and working conditions.

In late June and early July of 1892, a major confrontation between labor and corporate leadership took place at the Carnegie Steel Company’s Homestead Steel Works facility in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Tensions had begun earlier in February, when the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, which represented a large number of Carnegie’s most skilled employees, negotiated to renew the union’s contract, which was set to expire on June 30, 1892. Andrew Carnegie, the owner of Carnegie Steel, had the company’s chair, Frick, make a bombshell offer to the union: he proposed a wage reduction of more than eighteen percent and the removal of a number of positions from the union’s collective bargaining unit. For the Homestead workers, wages were tied to the selling price of steel (a practice known as “sliding scale” wages). While there was no cap for increasing prices and wages, there was a limit at which the decline of wages relative to prices stopped, and Frick and Carnegie had proposed lowering the minimum limit of compensation even further. Based on the recent increase in the Homestead facility’s output, the union had entered the negotiations under the expectation that Carnegie would offer a wage increase. The move, which many historians believe was deliberately orchestrated by Carnegie himself in an attempt to provoke a strike in order to undermine organized labor, was both bold and unexpected.

In late June, several days prior to the expiration of the union’s collective bargaining agreement, Frick closed portions of the mill and barred entry to union employees. Although less than eight hundred employees were members of Amalgamated, more than three thousand employees agreed to strike in protest. Left alone to manage the strike by Carnegie (who was touring Scotland), Frick quickly completed the construction of a tall fence around the plant in order to keep out striking workers; the workers organized picket lines to surround the facility and prevent its operations from resuming.

In an effort to regain control of the Homestead plant, Frick dispatched by boat three hundred armed Pinkerton agents on the night of July 5 to enter the facility by river. Upon their arrival at the mill, the Pinkerton agents were met by the striking employees. A violent confrontation ensued as the Pinkertons and workers exchanged heavy gunfire. Nine workers and several Pinkerton agents were killed, and several hundred people suffered injuries. In light of the violence, Frick contacted the governor of Pennsylvania, Robert E. Pattison, in Harrisburg. Pattison deployed the state militia to Homestead. The presence of the militia enabled Frick to resume operations at the plant by employing strikebreakers. An assassination attempt on Frick on July 23 dissolved public support for the strike, and the strikers voted to return to work on Carnegie’s terms. With the collapse of the union, Homestead workers saw their wages slashed, work hours increased, and the elimination of several hundred jobs at the facility.

Two days after the violent confrontation between Pinkerton agents and striking workers on July 6, a Pennsylvania newspaper published an interview with Frick, in which he justified his actions and unequivocally expressed his disdain for organized labor.

Author Biography

Henry Clay Frick was born in West Overton, Pennsylvania, on December 19, 1849. He briefly attended Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio, but he did not finish his studies. Instead, he moved to Pittsburgh, where he entered the coal and coke (a fuel used in steelmaking) business with his cousins in 1871. By 1880, he bought his cousins out of their partnership and founded the H. C. Frick Coke Company. Within a decade of its founding, Frick’s company was producing more than eighty percent of the Pittsburgh steel industry’s coke, rapidly turning Frick into a millionaire. In 1882, Frick and industrialist Carnegie entered a major partnership, bringing together Carnegie’s steel empire and Frick’s growing coke industry. Later in life, Frick moved to New York, where he constructed a massive mansion to house his growing art collection. Frick died on December 2, 1919, and he bequeathed his extensive art collection to create The Frick Collection, a museum inside his New York City residence.

Document Analysis

Despite his stated willingness to negotiate in good faith with the union members, Frick was an outspoken opponent of organized labor. His comments to the Pittsburgh Post reflected this attitude: in his interview, Frick accuses the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers of attempting to take over Carnegie Steel and of inciting the violence and destruction that occurred during the standoff with Pinkerton agents. He also places responsibility for keeping the peace in the hands of the local, regional, and state law enforcement authorities.

When asked about the events leading up to the strike, Frick declares that the Amalgamated Association is an unwelcome organization. Other Carnegie Steel Company plants, he argues, operate without the presence of Amalgamated personnel “with the greatest satisfaction to ourselves and to the unquestioned advantage of our employees.” He adds that Amalgamated members have simply refused to hear Carnegie’s side of the issue and were being intransigent in their demands. On the issue of sliding scale wages, for example, Frick argues that linking wages to the selling price of steel (and putting in place a minimum to prevent bottoming out) balances the interests of the corporation and its employees. Frick further argues that Carnegie initially requested a reduction in wages in order to purchase far more efficient machines and equipment that had boosted the daily output of Homestead workers, thereby increasing their earnings. Even the number of employees affected by wage reductions was relatively small (about 325 of 3,800 workers), he claims.

Frick claims that because Amalgamated and the striking workers refused to negotiate in good faith with Carnegie, it was necessary to cut ties with the union and close the plant to the striking workers. He accuses the union of essentially laying siege to the town and states that he appealed directly to the sheriff of Allegheny County, where Homestead was located. However, when the sheriff’s deputies arrived, they too were intimidated by the large numbers of hostile striking workers. No local force could counter the union mob, Frick suggests, necessitating the arrival of the Pinkerton agents and the state militia. When asked whether he believed the strike had political implications, Frick responds that his job is to operate a business, regardless of how either political party views his company.

Essential Themes

Frick’s comments to the media following the end of the Homestead Strike were defiant and accusatory, assigning responsibility for the strike and the violence that ensued entirely to the Amalgamated members. He remained adamant in his belief that Amalgamated had grossly misinterpreted the company’s wage policies and was unnecessarily stubborn in their demands. He argued that the principal issue of the strike was the “question as to whether or not the proprietors or its workmen will manage the works.” He further pointed at the union as the instigator of a violent situation so difficult to contain that Frick had to call in private contractors to ensure security. Frick’s company, he stated, was well within its legal rights to make operational changes, while Amalgamated was engaged in blatantly illegal activities.

The aftermath of the Homestead Strike saw a significant diminishment in the power and influence of unions, not only in the Pittsburgh steel industry but also nationwide. Throughout the United States, many employers became reluctant to enter into contracts with unions. The violent confrontation at Homestead is illustrative of the tensions between organized labor and management that were playing out across the country at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • MacKay, James. Andrew Carnegie: Little Boss. New York: Random, 2012. Print.
  • Skrabec, Quentin R., Jr. Henry Clay Frick: The Life of the Perfect Capitalist. Jefferson: McFarland, 2010. Print.
  • Standiford, Les. Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership that Changed America. New York: Broadway, 2006. Print.
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