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A Triumph of the Gilded Age

The Battle for Homestead, 1880–1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel

by Paul Krause
University of Pittsburgh Press, 548 pp., $19.95 (paper)

The River Ran Red’: Homestead 1892

edited by David P. Demarest Jr.
University of Pittsburgh Press, 232 pp., $19.95 (paper)


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 an unusually rich documentary record. “The River Ran Red” is a commemorative anthology of newspaper clippings, sermons, photographs, cartoons, and other contemporary sources, all testifying to the shocking effect the events had on the nation. Dozens of out-of-town journalists and sketch-artists were on the scene. Committees of both the House and the Senate began convening hearings into the causes of the lockout and strike even before the five-month battle was over. Fifteen years later, teams of sociologists from the Pittsburgh Survey, a pioneering social research project funded by the Russell Sage Foundation and other Progressive organizations, descended on Homestead and gathered information about the strike’s impact and consequences. Some of the frenzied, confidential cables and memoranda from 1892 that historians later discovered in the Carnegie and Frick papers are also included in the anthology.

It is difficult to say something new about an event so well covered, and so closely studied, yet Paul Krause’s The Battle for Homestead manages to say many new things, not only about the strike itself but about the events preceding it, and about its importance for the country. Krause has examined Homestead from the bottom up, and particularly through the testimony of numerous, now forgotten labor leaders, local politicians, and Homestead workers. More deeply than any previous scholar I know of, he has studied the political ideas of the period and the cultural assumptions of the town’s polyglot workers. Krause’s command of European history and his fluency in Slovak—rare among American historians of the immigrant experience—are an enormous help here, giving him access to testimony that had before been closed. He has also meticulously studied the more familiar Homestead materials, and has discovered important omissions and factual errors in some of the standard histories, on matters ranging from the decisive role of the Pittsburgh Republican machine in aiding Frick and Carnegie to the exact number of strikers who were killed.1

Although Krause is entirely on the union’s side, his treatment of Carnegie, Frick, and their political allies seems fair. One can debate some of his historical judgments, especially about the workers’ ideology, but his book is the most reliable account available so far of how Homestead happened, and why it had so powerful an effect on the country.

The ostensible cause of the strike was a dispute over wages, but everyone in Homestead knew that the roots were deeper. Twenty years earlier, when iron was still the industrial metal of choice, skilled workers virtually controlled production. Puddling the molten iron and rolling the finished product required a mastery of arcane craft lore and enormous physical strength, along with an ability to lead crews of up to sixteen men through their tasks. There were only a few ways to do the work correctly in these mills and foundries. The skilled workers knew what these were, management did not, and power over day-to-day operations was distributed accordingly. In the 1860s and 1870s disputes arose over wages and working conditions, but the ironworkers managed to sustain their craft unions, which merged in 1876 to form the Amalgamated, a union of nearly four thousand members—strong enough to force their employers to take them seriously. The puddlers, who stood at the apex of the labor hierarchy, referred to the iron industry as “our trade” without much fear of being contradicted. Manufacturers, they believed, were free to sell their products at whatever prices they pleased, but they had no right to set the price of labor.

Power began to shift in the 1870s and 1880s, when the Bessemer process and the open-hearth furnace revolutionized the industry. By changing the chemistry of metal making, the inventors of these new processes vastly improved the methods for removing impurities from iron and mixing the purified produce with alloys in order to make steel. They then perfected the technology required to apply their discoveries and produce industrial steel far more cheaply than iron. A new generation of steel manufacturers, particularly the young Scottish immigrant, Andrew Carnegie, invested heavily in the new equipment. Having made a small fortune in railroad and iron investments in the 1860s, Carnegie steadily acquired new Bessemer facilities and, in the mid-1880s, built the nation’s premier open-hearth furnace at Homestead.

Much of the savings in the switch from iron to steel involved labor: the new technology allowed manufacturers to replace highly skilled workers with machines tended by newcomers with indifferent skills. Open-hearth steelmaking eventually eliminated puddling altogether. By the end of the century, the president of the Carnegie Steel Company, Charles Schwab, would boast that he needed only six weeks to turn a raw farm boy into a competent melder, and melding was one of the few skilled jobs by then remaining.

But the changes affected much more than wage bills and profit margins. By transforming the work process, the new steel methods also undermined the skilled workers’ monopoly on expertise, and thus enabled management to assert its control over the work rules as well as over wages. Henceforth, the owners and managers expected to dictate all the industry’s decisions, which the workers would either have to accept or lose their jobs.

Once management installed the new machines, the first step for the new regime was to cripple or destroy the craft unions. And here, once again, Andrew Carnegie was expert. In 1876, Carnegie had broken a strike at his immense Bessemer steelworks in Braddock, Pennsylvania, and ousted the local chapter of the newly united Amalgamated. When in the 1880s labor organizations (first the Amalgamated, then the Knights of Labor) tried to reestablish a foothold at Braddock, Carnegie was powerful enough to prevent it.

It was the Carnegie plant at Homestead, however, that posed the ultimate test of the new managerial power. After he purchased the already technologically advanced Homestead steelworks in 1883, Carnegie made it the jewel of his growing corporate empire, the American answer, he believed, to the gargantuan Krupp plants at Essen. By the end of the decade, Carnegie had added the latest in open-hearth technology, built new finishing mills (including an enormous and sophisticated department for manufacturing armor plate), and pushed overall production to unprecedented levels. Spread out over some ninety acres of land beside the Monongahela River, and manned, in 1892, by 3,800 workers, the Homestead Works was an industrial marvel where the latest machines required only a minimum of skilled labor. To visit the place, astonished trade journals reported, was to see steelmaking’s future.

But Homestead also had the best-organized work force in the industry: the Homestead branch of the Amalgamated, which kept pace with industrial expansion by enrolling additional skilled and semi-skilled workers and enlarging the number of local lodges, or chapters, from six to eight. Although the national body tended toward cautious craft unionism, dedicated exclusively to serving the interests of the more skilled and better-paid men, the Homestead Amalgamated, in defiance of the national union’s policy, enlisted unskilled Slovak immigrants on the eve of the lockout, in order to solidify its bargaining position. All told, in 1892, about one quarter of all the steel-works’ employees were members of the Amalgamated, while a local assembly of the less powerful Knights of Labor was also admitting laborers as well as skilled men from Carnegie’s mills, and from the nearby Homestead Glass Works.

Homestead’s organized workers denied they were aiming to obstruct the steelmaking revolution or to force the company to preserve redundant jobs. Repeatedly, the union proved tolerant of technological replacement. The Amalgamated’s national president, William Weihe, asserted that the skilled men considered themselves industrial innovators of a sort, and welcomed the new methods, believing “in the American idea that the genius of the country should not be retarded.” So long as the Amalgamated’s lodges controlled the work rules and looked after the membership’s wages, the men appeared satisfied.

This is not to idealize conditions in the Homestead Works, or in the town generally. The mills never closed, and most employees worked either a ten- or a fourteen-hour shift. The heat from the converters and furnaces was so intense that the men’s tobacco spittle sizzled when it hit the floor. The Pittsburgh Survey later reported that Homestead employees reached their peak at thirty and were worn out at forty. The men often labored in a state of exhaustion, continually scorched by cinders, their throats parched by the tiny particles of steel that filled the air. Not surprisingly, horrifying accidents were commonplace: on payday at the plant gate, the men on their way home would pass groups of ex-workmates begging with cups and carrying signs that explained exactly how they had been mutilated.

  1. 1

    The best modern book until now, Leon Wolff’s Lockout: The Story of the Homestead Strike of 1892—A Study of Violence, Unionism, and the Carnegie Steel Empire (Harper and Row, 1965), is weakened by its neglect of the labor sources. Much better, in many respects, is J. Bernard Hogg, “The Homestead Strike of 1892” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1943). Arthur G. Burgoyne’s dramatic prolabor, journalistic account, Homestead (1893; University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979) is still worth reading, despite the flaws that Krause detects in its discussion of the political machinations behind the call-up of the state militia. Most textbook accounts of Homestead still amount to little more than a recycling of Burgoyne’s book. There is also an excellent chapter on Homestead, and management’s response, in Joseph Frazier Wall’s superb biography, Andrew Carnegie (1970; University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989). On labor, see also Francis G. Couvares, The Remaking of Pittsburgh: Class and Culture in an Industrializing City, 1877–1919 (State University of New York Press, 1984).

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