The Homestead Steel Strike

Battle of Strikers and Pinkertons Shocked America in 1892

Print depicting strike battle at Homestead Steel Mill
Depictions of "The Great Battle of Homestead". Getty Images 

The Homestead Strike, a work stoppage at Carnegie Steel's plant at Homestead, Pennsylvania, turned into one of the most violent episodes in the American labor struggles of the late 1800s.

A planned occupation of the plant turned into a bloody battle when hundreds of men from the Pinkerton Detective Agency exchanged gunfire with workers and townspeople along the banks of the Monongahela River. In a surprising twist, strikers captured a number of Pinkertons when the strikebreakers were forced to surrender.

The battle on July 6, 1892 ended with a truce, and the release of prisoners. But the state militia arrived a week later to settle things in favor of the company.

And two weeks later an anarchist outraged by the behavior of Henry Clay Frick, the vehemently anti-labor manager of Carnegie Steel, tried to assassinate Frick in his office. Though shot twice, Frick survived.

Other labor organizations had rallied to the defense of the union at Homestead, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. And for a time public opinion seemed to side with the workers.

But the attempted assassination of Frick, and the involvement of a known anarchist, was used to discredit the labor movement. In the end, the management of Carnegie Steel won.

Background of the Homestead Plant Labor Problems

In 1883 Andrew Carnegie bought the Homestead Works, a steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, east of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River. The plant, which had been focused on producing steel rails for railroads, was changed and modernized under Carnegie's ownership to produce steel plate, which could be used for production of armored ships.

Carnegie, known for uncanny business foresight, had become one of the richest men in America, surpassing the wealth of earlier millionaires such as John Jacob Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Under Carnegie's direction, the Homestead plant kept expanding, and the town of Homestead, which had about 2,000 residents in 1880, when the plant first opened, grew to a population of about 12,000 in 1892. About 4,000 workers were employed at the steel plant.

The union representing workers at the Homestead plant, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, had signed a contract with Carnegie's company in 1889. The contract was set to expire on July 1, 1892.

Carnegie, and especially his business partner Henry Clay Frick, wanted to break the union. There has always been considerable dispute about how much Carnegie knew of the ruthless tactics Frick planned to employ.

At the time of the 1892 strike, Carnegie was at a luxurious estate he owned in Scotland. But it seems, based on letters the men exchanged, that Carnegie was fully aware of Frick's tactics.

The Beginning of the Homestead Strike

In 1891 Carnegie began to think about reducing wages at the Homestead plant, and when his company held meetings with the Amalgamated union in the spring of 1892 the company informed the union that it would be cutting wages at the plant.

Carnegie also wrote a letter, before he left for Scotland in April 1892, which indicated that he intended to make Homestead a non-union plant.

In late May, Henry Clay Frick instructed the company negotiators to inform the union that wages were being reduced. The union would not accept the proposal, which the company said was non-negotiable.

In late June 1892, Frick had public notices posted in the town of Homestead informing union members that since the union had rejected the company's offer, the company would have nothing to do with the union.

And to further provoke the union, Frick began construction of what was being called "Fort Frick." Tall fences were constructed around the plant, topped with barbed wire. The intent of the barricades and barbed wire was obvious: Frick intended to lock out the union and bring in "scabs," non-union workers.

The Pinkertons Attempted to Invade Homestead

On the night of July 5, 1892, approximately 300 Pinkerton agents arrived in western Pennsylvania by train and boarded two barges which had been stocked with hundreds of pistols and rifles as well as uniforms. The barges were towed on the Monongahela River to Homestead, where Frick assumed the Pinkertons could land undetected in the middle of the night.

Lookouts saw the barges coming and alerted the workers in Homestead, who raced to the riverbank. When the Pinkertons tried to land at dawn, hundreds of townspeople, some of them armed with weapons dating back to the Civil War, were waiting.

It was never determined who fired the first shot, but a gun battle broke out. Men were killed and wounded on both sides, and the Pinkertons were pinned down on the barges, with no escape possible.

Throughout the day of July 6, 1892, townspeople of Homestead tried to attack the barges, even pumping oil into the river in an attempt to set fires atop the water. Finally, late in the afternoon, some of the union leaders convinced the townspeople to let the Pinkertons surrender.

As the Pinkertons left the barges to walk to a local opera house, where they would be held until the local sheriff could come and arrest them, townspeople threw bricks at them. Some Pinkertons were beaten.

The sheriff arrived that night and removed the Pinkertons, though none of them were arrested or indicted for murder, as the townspeople had demanded.

Newspapers had been covering the crisis for weeks, but the news of the violence created a sensation when it moved quickly across the telegraph wires. Newspaper editions were rushed out with startling accounts of the confrontation. The New York Evening World published a special extra edition with the headline: "AT WAR: Pinkertons and Workers Fight at Homestead."

Six steelworkers had been killed in the fighting, and would be buried in the following days. As the people in Homestead held funerals, Henry Clay Frick, in a newspaper interview, announced that he would have no dealings with the union.

Henry Clay Frick Was Shot

A month later, Henry Clay Frick was in his office in Pittsburgh and a young man came to see him, claiming to represent an agency that could supply replacement workers.

The visitor to Frick was actually a Russian anarchist, Alexander Berkman, who had been living in New York City and who had no connection to the union. Berkman forced his way into Frick's office and shot him twice, nearly killing him.

Frick survived the assassination attempt, but the incident was used to discredit the union and the American labor movement in general. The incident became a milestone in U.S. labor history, along with the Haymarket Riot and the 1894 Pullman Strike.

Carnegie Succeeded in Keeping the Union Out of His Plants

The Pennsylvania militia (similar to today's National Guard) took over the Homestead Plant and non-union strikebreakers were brought in to work. Eventually, with the union broken, many of the original workers returned to the plant.

Leaders of the union were prosecuted, but juries in western Pennsylvania failed to convict them.

While the violence had been happening in western Pennsylvania, Andrew Carnegie had been off in Scotland, avoiding the press at his estate. Carnegie would later claim that he had little to do with the violence at Homestead, but his claims were met with skepticism, and his reputation as a fair employer and philanthropist was greatly tarnished.

And Carnegie did succeed in keeping unions out of his plants.

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Your Citation
McNamara, Robert. "The Homestead Steel Strike." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 27). The Homestead Steel Strike. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Homestead Steel Strike." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).