1892 The Homestead Strike

July 6, 1892

Early in the morning of July 6, 1892, two covered barges floated down the Monongahela River toward Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead steel plant. Homestead was the crown jewel of Carnegie’s vast steel manufacturing empire. It was located just six miles upriver from Pittsburg. The customized barges contained food for several weeks, plus 300 pistols and 250 rifles. The boats also carried 300 Pinkerton detectives. The Pinkerton company was hired to provide a private army to whatever party chose to employ them.

A Battle of Titans

There had been labor battles in the 1870s and 1880s. In 1877 railway workers organized the first national strike to protest salary cuts. In 1886 unions battled with McCormick Reaper Works in a struggle that ended with a bombing in Chicago’s Haymarket Square that killed seven policemen and injured sixty bystanders. The confrontation at Homestead pitted the largest union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers, against the largest steel manufacturer, the Carnegie company.

The workers suspected that the company might bring in Pinkertons to break a strike. Watches were set on all the entrances to the town. When the barges were spotted an alarm was sounded. There followed a battle in which even a fourth of July cannon was fired at the barges. Failing to set the barges on fire with an oil slick on the water, workers fired Roman candles left over from the Fourth of July celebrations at the barges.  The barges suffered so many gunshots and became too hot for the detectives to remain inside. The detectives put up a white flag and were allowed to pass through a gauntlet of the citizens who mocked and assaulted them as they passed.

The workers won the day, but soon were to lose the battle.  The National Guard was called in. The plant closed and reopened non-union. Workers who had not participated in the demonstrations were allowed to re-apply to work under the new conditions.

Changes in the Economic Life of America

In 1860 as many were self-employed as earned wages. By 1900, two of every three Americans relied upon wages. Corporate managers were experimenting with new ways to organize and control the workplace. The new workplace rules limited the freedoms of workers and negatively affected worker satisfaction. The battle at Homestead affirmed the rights of ownership in the company. It also saw a change in the willingness of government to act to protect the propertied interests. This is a milestone on the path to a corporate America.

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