The Battle for Homestead, 18801892: Politics, Culture, and Steel
‘The River Ran Red’: Homestead 1892
In a year of important American centenaries—Columbus’s landing, the Salem witchcraft trials, the death of Whitman—it may be easy to overlook the lockout and strike at the Carnegie steelworks in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892. Yet the Homestead strike was perhaps the culminating event of the Gilded Age. The stakes were enormous, in a fight that pitted the world’s mightiest steel corporation against the nation’s strongest union. Several of its episodes—the workers’ pitched battles with the Pinkerton strikebreakers, the arrival of the Pennsylvania state militia, the shooting of Henry Clay Frick by Alexander Berkman—these are set pieces in the history of the American labor movement.
Not that the Homestead strike was the only dramatic labor upheaval of its time, or anywhere near the bloodiest. The nationwide railroad strike fifteen years earlier had far greater economic repercussions and cost many times the number of lives. After 1877, factories and mines across America became armed camps, as industrial strife reached levels unmatched anywhere in the world in the nineteenth century. In his afterword to the anthology “The River Ran Red,” the historian David Montgomery writes that in 1892 alone state militias intervened in twenty-three separate labor disputes, from the docks of New Orleans to the iron mines of Minnesota. Labor turmoil would not reach its peak for another two years, with coal miners’ strikes and the Pullman strike and boycott, in which railroad management, the nation’s judiciary, and federal troops ordered by President Grover Cleveland combined forces and dealt organized labor a lasting defeat.
Still, the Homestead strike stands out as one of the most dramatic and bitter industrial conflicts of the era, a parable of the bewildering economic and political forces that were rapidly expanding corporate authority over American life. On one side were the skilled, relatively well-paid members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, who had long-established rights as industrial craftsmen and a large degree of control at work. The Amalgamated also had the support of thousands of other Homestead workers, including hundreds of immigrant laborers who had recently arrived from Central Europe filled with high expectations of the New World.
On the opposite side were Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, determined to eradicate the union in order to gain complete control of the Homestead Works and affirm the principle that the property rights of a United States corporation were absolute. In this aim, they asked for, and got, the powerful backing of county authorities, the state courts, and some of Pennsylvania’s leading elected officials, thus forging an alliance between government and capital that would shape the politics of industrial America for decades to come. “Never heretofore,” one labor journalist concluded after the union’s defeat, “has civil authority permitted itself to be employed as a tool to a corporation so palpably.” Whatever the view, it became clear to observers that something alarming had happened at Homestead.
Because of the intensity of public reaction, the Homestead struggle left …