I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science in 1995. My interests include political and social issues and history.
Andrew Carnegie dominated the market in steel production in the 19th Century. He became rich, producing steel for the railroads and, when that industry began failing in the 1890s, he started getting rich providing steel for the bridges and skyscrapers of America's growing cities; all of this a product of the post-Civil War industrial revolution.
He had a fierce rivalry with John D Rockefeller who monopolized oil production in the same era. In an effort to make the most profit both men ruthlessly tried to gain an advantage, at the expense of the workers of the time. To make more profit, these leaders of industry cut wages and increased hours. Men died on the job keeping up with production and being overworked and underpaid.
Carnegie's right-hand man, Henry Clay Frick, did all the dirty work that management evidently must do; entirely with Carnegie's consent. He cut costs, drove up production and destroyed labor along with its rights to collective bargaining.
As much as Carnegie tried to tout himself as a philanthropist and friend of the workingman, he definitely was no friend to labor or the people. He and Frick were responsible for the horrible deaths of the people of Johnstown who had died due to a poorly maintained dam at the site of Frick's Southfork Fishing and Hunting Club--an exclusive club catering to the ultra-rich, such as Carnegie and Andrew Mellon.
So, it's no surprise in 1892, when steel workers were demanding fair wages at Carnegie's Homestead Works steel production plant, that Frick (and, so, Carnegie) closed all roads to negotiation with the union.
Almagamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers Vs Carnegie Steel Company
Almagamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, a union associated with the American Federation of Labor, had become a significant force in the labor movement in the late 1880s. They had been able to unite masses of workers to stage strikes and demand better wages for steel workers. They numbered 25,000 strong by the late 19th Century.
Carnegie had entered into an agreement with the union to keep wages fair, on a sliding scale with prices, but was only willing to keep up this end of the bargain until the contract expired; and the company also wanted the floor of the sliding scale lowered. The union did not agree to these terms and were threatening a strike. Carnegie, seeing the writing on the wall, escaped to Europe for a vacation and put his henchman Henry Clay Frick in charge; Frick was known as violently and ruthlessly anti-union.
Striking while the iron was hot, Frick constructed a fence around the steel plant, complete with watch towers and barbed wire. The Homestead Strike actually began as a lock-out.
To make matters worse, Frick hired the notorious mercenary company, The Pinkerton Detective Agency, as goons to drive back union activists at Homestead. Three-hundred Pinkerton thugs arrived by ship and were met by nearly 4000 workers and towns-people who were not even slightly friendly to them. A battle of words ensued and a shot was fired in the midst of it. No one knows who fired that first shot, but after it occurred, a full-on battle commenced.
One of the reasons for this huge turn-out on the side of labor was that the town burgess (mayor) was a union member and rallied the town to defend the workers.
Essentially, after a battle involving snipers and even a cannon, the Pinkerton men were outnumbered and outgunned and surrendered;after the death of 6 workers and 3 Pinkertons. They were marched off their barges and beaten ruthlessly and eventually shipped off out of town. Their barges were burned up in the water.
This whole time workers took charge of the plant and prevented any intrusion by strike-breakers.
Frick, furious, called on the governor to send in the National Guard. Thousands of troops were sent in to quell the rebellion and, in the end, the union lost, workers were replaced and many workers returned to work under the same old conditions.
After-math and Implications
Much of America was horrified by Frick's actions and, as usual, Carnegie was ever-conscious of public relations. He tried to distance himself from Frick and the incident and, in fact, fired his once "trusted" CEO.
At the same time, many people were horrified by the actions of the union. They opposed the union's take-over of the plant and the violence that ensued. Of course, being the people who kept that plant running and producing, workers felt the plant was theirs; I'm apt to agree.
The era in which the Homestead Strike occurred represents a shift in the US economy and the advent of ruthless industrialists who made their fortunes on the backs of workers and at the expense of their competition. Some decades later, the federal government would deal with these under-handed "captains" of industry with anti-trust laws that broke up their monopolies and domination.
America had fought a Civil War to end slavery only to usher in a new kind of labor, equally as abhorrent: Wage slavery. As industry grew after the Civil War, men rose to prominence and amassed fortunes through violence, cunning and ruthlessness. And one wonders if there was any other way, considering our economic system and general culture of struggle and competition.
It is interesting to note that the giants of business of that era--Carnegie, Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan--coalesced for their mutual benefit against William Jennings Bryan, who was seeking the Democratic nomination for President. So, they bought a politician by the name of William McKinley who, not too surprisingly, took us to war with Spain and the Philippines, to secure trade in Asia. It should be noted that partisan politics played a big role in events surrounding turmoil in industry. Typically the Republican Party supported the tycoons of business and Democrats supported labor. And then you had men like Bryan who were part of the burgeoning Progressive Movement that wanted to take decisive action against corrupt, abusive and unfair businessmen. It was J.P. Morgan who pushed Tesla out of the way and took advantage of Edison to become the owner of American electricity. He also loaned tons of money to the US government because he dominated finance capital. So, it's no wonder he tried to buy government by purchasing and promoting a candidate to defeat a progressive like Bryan.
The industrial revolution of the late 19th Century ushered in a new era of monied interests, war and the abuse, exploitation and subjugation of labor. The more ruthless and competitive (what's the difference?) the businessman, the more successful he was; I think there's no doubt about that.
Inevitably, the government intervened to break up monopolies and ensure fair treatment for workers, which just shows you the power and influence that people have when they work together against unfair and abusive treatment; someone, including those who run government, has to take notice. The story of the Homestead Strike is a testament to the effect of unbridled capitalism. The controllers of money and industry inevitably brutalize workers and pay them enough to starve, overwork them and when they complain, they simply beat them into submission. When a situation is unfair and unequal, causing intense struggle and pain, based in dominance and subordination, conflict will always arise, obviously. The answer is either to develop an entirely different way of going about things or do something real about the effects of our inadequate and brutal social and economic system. At this point, America has chosen the latter. I think it's a matter of time before we will see that we need to choose the former.
© 2014 Nathan Bernardo
Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on July 09, 2014:
Thanks, Janis. It's a fascinating period of time in our history.
Janis from California on July 09, 2014:
Great historical account.