The Homestead Strike was an industrial lockout and strike which began on June 30, 1892, culminating in a battle between strikers and private security agents on July 6, 1892. The battle was the second largest and one of the most serious disputes in U.S. labor history second only to the Battle of Blair Mountain.
On November 20, the Homestead strike was finally declared over. The army of strikers had given up the fight, and the Carnegie Steel Company resumed operations without the union. This strike was one of the most disastrous in the history of the United States. It involved nearly ten thousand men at one time. The loss of wages amounted to approximately 2,000,000, and the loss of the firm was estimated at nearly double that. Thirty-five deaths were caused by the strike. Following this event, there was a lack of labor activism for decades.
One of the strike's consequences was that the steel mills shifted from an eight hour to a 12-hour a day, six-day work week, with a 24-hour shift (followed by a day off), every two weeks. It would be some 44 years before the steel industry would again be unionized.
In retaliation for the death of the workers, Alexander Berkman—working loosely with the Homestead strikers—unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Frick on July 23rd. While Berkman was apprehended and imprisoned for many years, he and his lover Emma Goldman would become powerful advocates for working class struggles in the years to come.
Strike leaders were charged with murder; 160 other strikers were tried for other crimes. All were acquitted by friendly juries. The entire Strike Committee was then arrested for treason against the state, but no jury would convict them. The strike held for four months, but the plant was producing steel with strikebreakers who were brought in, often in locked trains, not knowing their destination, not knowing a strike was on. The strikers, with no resources left, agreed to return to work, their leaders blacklisted.
It was his intention that the Second and Third Brigades of the National Guard should gather there on July 11, go into camp for the night, and march into Homestead at daybreak the following morning. But the correspondents got wind of his plan, and the details appeared in all the papers. There was a great chance now of the rioters and their sympathizers collecting in great force at Brinton, and a possibility of their making an attack upon the soldiers before they reached Homestead. To prevent this, Gen. Snowden altered his plans and notified his colonels that he had selected Blairsville, a station on the Pennsylvania Railroad, about fifty-two miles east of Pittsburgh for the rendezvous. The general intended this second order should leak out, which it did, and duly appeared in the papers, but what his true intentions were he kept to himself, not even taking his colonels into his confidence.
The governor of Pennsylvania ordered state militia into Homestead. Armed with the latest in rifles and Gatling guns, they took over the plant. Strikebreakers who arrived on locked trains, often unaware of their destination or the presence of a strike, took over the steel mills. Four months after the strike was declared, the men's resources were gone and they returned to work.
Hugh O'Donnell, the young leader of the strikers, made a brief statement, giving an account of how the fight was brought about. According to him, about two o'clock in the morning an alarm reached the headquarters of the strikers that the Pinkertons were descending upon Homestead. He went down to the bank of the River Monongahela. A big crowd of Hungarians, Slavs, women, and boys were on the banks, and were firing pistols in the air. He advised the men not to fire and followed them as they moved up to the point toward which the boat was heading. While he was addressing the crowd, urging them not to use violence, a volley was fired from the barges and a bullet struck his thumb. The firing lasted about five minutes.
On the night of July 5, 1892, hundreds of Pinkerton guards boarded barges 5 miles down the river from Homestead and moved toward the plant, where ten thousand strikers and sympathizers waited. The crowd warned the Pinkertons not to step off the barge. A striker lay down on the gangplank, and when a Pinkerton man tried to shove him aside, he fired, wounding the detective in the thigh. In the gunfire that followed on both sides, seven workers were killed.
Between the lock-out on June 29, the day before the contract between Carnegie Steel and the Amalgamated Iron and Steel Workers expired, and the decision by Pennsylvania's governor to send all 8,500 members of the state's National Guard to occupy the town of Homestead, workers fought a pitched battle with a "private army" hired by Carnegie's partner, Henry Clay Frick. The "army" consisted of 300 Pinkerton detectives, heavily armed, who travelled the seven miles from Pittsburgh on barges early on the morning of July 6. Workers lined the shore and opened fire as the barges came within range. The battle lasted twelve hours before the company's force finally surrendered.
"This is your chance to re-organize the whole affair," Carnegie wrote his manager. "Far too many men required by Amalgamated rules." Carnegie believed workers would agree to relinquish their union to hold on to their jobs.
It was a severe miscalculation. Although only 750 of the 3,800 workers at Homestead belonged to the union, 3,000 of them met and voted overwhelmingly to strike. Frick responded by building a fence three miles long and 12 feet high around the steelworks plant, adding peepholes for rifles and topping it with barbed wire. Workers named the fence "Fort Frick."
In retaliation for the wage cut, workers in and out of the union hanged effigies of Frick and the plant’s superintendent J.A. Potter. Using this show as an excuse, Frick ordered the erection of a 12-foot high, 3-mile long, barbwire-topped cement barricade around the plant. On June 28th, he locked workers, mostly the skilled workers represented by the union, out of the plate mill and one furnace. The next day, after management and the union had failed to reach a collective bargaining agreement, he closed workers off to the remainder of the plant. On June 30th, the contract between Carnegie Steel and the Union had expired and the entire plant was shut down. By July 2nd, the entire workforce—union and non-union—of the Homestead Plant was laid off.
But Carnegie's drive for efficiency also led to an armed confrontation at Homestead. In contract talks in 1892, Henry Clay Frick, the superintendent of the Carnegie Steel Company, proposed to cut workers' wages, arguing that increased efficiency had inflated salaries. At the time, unskilled mill workers, who were mainly eastern European immigrants, made less than $1.70 for a 12-hour day. Skilled workers earned between $4 and $7.60 a day. Frick also wanted to eliminate the union from the plant.