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Remembering the Homestead Strike and Its Impact on the Labor Movement Today

By June 30, 2024July 1st, 2024No Comments

July 1, 2024

By Claudia Di Lima and Annie Regan

The Homestead Strike was a violent conflict between the Carnegie Steel Company and its workers in 1892. It took place in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in Carnegie’s largest steel mill located just outside of Pittsburgh. 

The dispute began when the steelworkers union (known as the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers) contract with the Carnegie Steel Company was to come to an end on July 1st, 1892. The Steel Company started by cutting workers wages, which led to the strike. 

Thus, Operations Manager Henry Frick locked all the striking steelworkers out of the mill and fenced it off, then fired almost all the workers–nearly 4,000 employees. 

“The entry of the vanguard of state troops upon the scene of recent strike.” July 13, 1892. Pittsburg Dispatch (Pittsburg, PA), Image 1. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

Frick hired “scabs”, or replacement non-union workers, and shipped them on barges to the mill. The union steelworkers stormed the plant and rushed the dock where the barges came in–shots were fired over twelve hours. The scabs eventually surrendered, and were beaten by the steelworkers as they were sent to safety. The barges were also burned. 

The steelworkers took control of the steel mill once again, but Frick had another thing prepared–he had communicated with Pennsylvania Governor Robert Emory Pattinson, who sent nearly 8,500 soldiers from the National Guard. The plant opened again, this time using other replacement workers. 

Additionally, union leaders and workers were charged with crimes and were kept in jail, making it very difficult for them to communicate with other union members and those involved in the strike. Ultimately, the strike failed, but most of those charged were acquitted of their crimes. 

In the end, the workers did not succeed in getting higher pay and shorter hours–and many of the strikers had to go right back to working for the Carnegie Steel Company. 

The strike began to fall apart after this. It was greatly exacerbated by an assassination attempt on Frick by an anarchist unconnected to the union. Many supporters began to see the strike differently after that. 



Significance


The strike ended steelworkers unions in the United States: the violence shed turned many against the union, and made membership numbers dwindle. Their numbers dropped nearly by 10,000 people, conclusively ending one of the biggest steelworkers unions in the United States. Overall, the public was against the strike due to the violence–it completely undermined the actual mission of the union, instead painting them as violent and crazy.  

The strike showed the sheer willpower of the men in the union, and how determined they were to get what they wanted. It also showed how easily some unions—even large ones—could fall apart. Another steelworkers union did not surface until the end of World War I. 

But, the Homestead Strike also negatively impacted the Carnegie Steel Company. Many people disliked the company hiring scabs. In fact, hired help in that manner was banned in 26 different states following the strike. It greatly corrupted the Steel Company’s image as well, especially Carnegie’s, the actual owner of the company. 

This 1892 political cartoon criticizes Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick for being unwilling to raise wages, even after protective tariffs had been passed.

Chiefly, though, the Homestead Strike shows how far the labor movement has come in the United States. The most famous labor strikes in our history are the successful ones, but there were many important ones otherwise–like the Homestead Strike. 

Despite the failures, the strike showcases how different the relationship between worker and company was in the late 1800s, just as the Industrial Revolution was beginning. 

In order to progress as a labor movement, we must learn from our past. Although it represented a time of violence and failure, we can still admire the gumption and determination that these men held as we similar strikes –although peaceful– with labor groups today.

Like the kids say today, the Homestead Strike walked so that the modern labor movement could run!

For instance, after months of negotiations, the IBEW’s Railroad members at four of the largest U.S. freight carriers finally have what they’ve long sought but that many working people take for granted: paid sick days.

And the movement has grown to expand its causes and demographics of workers. For example, effective earlier this month, workers have fought to pass the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (signed into law December 2022). This will help pregnant workers across the country secure and enforce a clear right to reasonable workplace accommodations–the same right afforded to workers with disabilities under federal law.

While we celebrate successes, we also are still fighting a lot of battles, including the1400 members of UE Locals 506 and 618 who build locomotives for Wabtec in Erie, PA are striking for green jobs. The two locals are working hard to bring new green jobs into the plant through the Green Locomotive Project. You can support them here!



Meetup for 132nd Anniversary – Battle of Homestead Commemoration


On Saturday, July 6, 2024, from 2:00-5:00 p.m., the Battle of Homestead Foundation presents an in-person program marking the battle’s 132nd anniversary and discussing the strike’s buildup and aftermath to current issues involving local unionization efforts in healthcare, retail, agriculture, industry and public service.



The event takes place at the Pump House, 880 E. Waterfront Drive in Munhall. The program is free and open to the public. Picnic refreshments will be available, and attendees are welcome to contribute their own favorite foods and beverages.

“The 1892 steel strike was a defining event in America’s ongoing struggle to ensure workplace rights,” says Battle of Homestead Foundation president John Haer. “Observing the anniversary lets us reflect on the role of organized labor in fighting the extreme economic inequality endangering our nation in 2024.”