The Homestead Strike: A Congressional View Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The circumstances that led to the Homestead Strike did not happen overnight. The skilled laborers in the mill had been engaged in a contest of wills with their employer, Carnegie Steel, for over a decade before the lid blew off and resulted in what came to be known as the “Battle of Homestead,” in which ten workers were killed. The issues underlying the Homestead Strike had to do with the rights of workers to organize into unions and collectively bargain for better wages pitted against the need for increasing profits by company owner Andrew Carnegie and his business partner who ran the Homestead Mill, Henry Clay Frick. However, the implications of what happened at Homestead would have ramifications far beyond Carnegie’s considerable steel empire, as the supremacy of the corporations over the workers and their unions–and even the local, state, and federal governments–would hold for many years.

Summary Overview

The circumstances that led to the Homestead Strike did not happen overnight. The skilled laborers in the mill had been engaged in a contest of wills with their employer, Carnegie Steel, for over a decade before the lid blew off and resulted in what came to be known as the “Battle of Homestead,” in which ten workers were killed. The issues underlying the Homestead Strike had to do with the rights of workers to organize into unions and collectively bargain for better wages pitted against the need for increasing profits by company owner Andrew Carnegie and his business partner who ran the Homestead Mill, Henry Clay Frick. However, the implications of what happened at Homestead would have ramifications far beyond Carnegie’s considerable steel empire, as the supremacy of the corporations over the workers and their unions–and even the local, state, and federal governments–would hold for many years.

Defining Moment

By 1892, Andrew Carnegie had been in the steel business for seventeen years and was the owner of the largest manufacturing company in the United States, producing over a quarter of the nation’s steel. Nine years earlier, in 1883, Carnegie had acquired a massive new mill near Pittsburgh, the Homestead Steel Works, which was only two years old at the time of purchase, and Carnegie made it the centerpiece in his steel empire. Though Carnegie had often been viewed as one of the more enlightened of the “robber barons,” the episode that occurred at Homestead would show him to be just as ruthless as his contemporaries when it came to the competition between workers’ rights and corporate profits.

As late as 1886, Carnegie had written a piece in a national periodical defending the workers’ right to form unions, though his business partner, Henry Clay Frick, disagreed. In 1889, the nearly four thousand workers at Homestead went on strike, and to end the unrest, Carnegie signed a three-year agreement with the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, recognizing the union and guaranteeing very favorable working conditions and wages to the workers. The contract had a three-year term, which was set to expire June 30, 1892. In those three years, Carnegie and Frick became increasingly convinced that the only way to increase the profits at Homestead was to decrease workers’ wages–and the only way to do that was to break the union.

Labor strife at Homestead was not an isolated event. In 1886, a strike against the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company had led to the violent explosions at Chicago’s Haymarket Square, which dealt a crippling blow to the first national union, the Knights of Labor. During 1892, coal miners went on strike in Tennessee, rail workers in New York, copper miners in Idaho, and nearly all workers in New Orleans. However, Carnegie was determined that a strike at Homestead would result in the breaking of the union.

In the months leading up to the end of the contract, Carnegie, preferring to watch the action from his family home in Dunfermline, Scotland, instructed Frick to increase production and stockpile steel plates in order to withstand a prolonged labor stoppage. His communication with his partner was very clear that he supported Frick, who had a well-earned reputation for ruthlessness, in his efforts to completely destroy the union. Carnegie assumed that the workers would capitulate and give up the union in order to keep their jobs. The more realistic Frick prepared by constructing an eleven-foot fence around the Homestead Mill to keep the workers out after the contract ran out, and he arranged for the Pinkerton Detective Agency to serve as a private police force that would enforce the lockout. With negotiations ending between the union and Frick on June 24, 1892, the stage was set for what would become a touchstone moment in the history of business and organized labor.

Author Biography

William C. Oates was elected to the Unites States House of Representatives from his home state of Alabama in 1880. He served in Congress until 1894, when he was elected governor of Alabama. The Confederate Civil War veteran and member of the Democratic Party sat on the House’s Judiciary Committee and was given the chairmanship of the subcommittee conducting the investigation into the violence and bloodshed that had taken place at Homestead. Specifically concentrating on the role that the hiring of the Pinkerton agents had in fomenting the violence that ensued, Oates interviewed nearly everyone involved in the Homestead affair, including Henry Clay Frick, mill superintendent John A. Potter, Pinkerton Detective Agency owners William and Robert Pinkerton, and a number of the mill workers. His report would do much to expose the events that happened before and during the strike.

Document Analysis

Congressman William C. Oates, who was placed in charge of the congressional investigation into the Homestead incident, sought to accomplish two important things in his report. First, he recounted, as accurately as possible, the events that transpired and what led to them. Second, and more importantly, he made recommendations as to what actions Congress should or should not take in response to the events at Homestead. In an ancillary way, Oates also made some evaluative comments as to who was to blame for what transpired, and in this, he was fairly evenhanded, assigning guilt to both sides in various degrees.

Oates begins by describing the factory at Homestead as well as the importance of Carnegie Steel both to the nation’s growing urban centers and to the US Navy, which demonstrates that although strikes were common throughout the period, this strike in particular stood to cripple an industrial hub that Oates thought was vital to national interests. He then moves to a discussion of the negotiations between the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers and Carnegie Steel’s president, Henry Clay Frick. Oates notes the offers of both sides without showing bias as to which side he believed to have the more reasonable position. Understanding both Frick’s desire to cut labor costs and the union’s resistance to the cuts, Oates blames Congress through its passage of the McKinley Tariff two years earlier in 1890 for creating the circumstances that led to the impasse and resulting violence.

Where Oates does take Frick to task is in his decision not to let the local authorities enforce the law but rather to hire three hundred private Pinkerton agents, which Oates describes as “a sort of private police or semi-military force,” to protect the mill. When guns arrived to arm the agents, violence ensued. Oates saw that Frick was spoiling for a fight, noting that he had negotiated for the Pinkerton agents before negotiations with the union had failed. For this, Oates condemns Frick, stating, “If men of wealth and corporations may with impunity hire guards in great numbers to perform the functions of the county and State officials in protecting property and preserving the peace, its inevitable effect will be to bring local government and civil authority into contempt.” Whereas he blamed the workers for their poor treatment of the Pinkerton agents they captured, the fact that the Pinkerton agents were there at all was both provocative and demonstrated a lack of respect for local authorities.

Essential Themes

The Battle of Homestead, as it has come to be known, came to an end when some eight thousand Pennsylvania state militia arrived on July 12, restoring order and protecting the plant for Carnegie Steel. Though the strikers did not return to work, Carnegie Steel was able to resume production using scab labor, workers willing to replace the strikers, despite local and national opinion favoring the strikers and viewing Carnegie Steel as greedy and at fault for the violence. However, just as the violence at Chicago’s Haymarket Square six years earlier seriously damaged the Knights of Labor’s credibility in public opinion, an attempt on Frick’s life by an anarchist less than two weeks later colored the public view of the strikers at Homestead. By November, the strike was over and the Amalgamated Association left, and Carnegie Steel was able to implement the lower wages and longer hours that it had initially sought.

For the workers at Homestead, their wages decreased by twenty percent between 1892 and 1907, while their work days increased from eight hours to twelve. The persistent pressure of the corporations caused membership in labor unions to decrease dramatically during the 1890s as a nationwide economic depression made good factory jobs more difficult to come by. For the next forty years, Frick and Carnegie’s goal was realized, with Carnegie Steel remaining defiantly nonunion. Many other mills and other industries followed suit by refusing to sign agreements with labor unions and weathering the strikes to achieve their goal of reducing the amount paid for labor.

Regardless of the party deemed to be at fault, violent events at places like Homestead caused labor unions to become associated with violence in the minds of much of the American public. Combined with the increasing power of corporations like Carnegie Steel to influence the actions of the local, state, and federal governments, it became increasingly difficult for unions to prevail in any sort of labor disagreements against the corporations. Despite Oates’s assigning much of the blame for the violence to Frick and Carnegie, the federal government, when it did anything about labor unrest, typically acted in the interests of the corporations rather than the workers until well into the twentieth century.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Brody, David. Steelworkers in America: The Nonunion Era. New York: Harper, 1969, Print.
  • Burgoyne, Arthur G. The Homestead Strike of 1892. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1979. Print.
  • Demarest, David. “The River Ran Red”: Homestead 1892. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1992. Print.
  • Kahan, Paul. The Homestead Strike: Labor, Violence, and American Industry. New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.
  • Krause, Paul. The Battle for Homestead, 1880–1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1992. Print.
  • Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.
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