An Accurate Account of the “Men Who Built America” Part 24

This is the twenty-fourth in my series of posts about the five businessmen the History Channel profiled in a terribly inaccurate and un-historical TV miniseries titled The Men Who Built America. I’m writing these posts in response to several comments and e-mails from TV viewers who have expressed interest in a more accurate version of the story. (Click here to see all Al’s columns on the program and its subjects.)

Post #24: The Homestead Steel Mill Strike

In late June of 1892 a labor strike at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Steel Works turned deadly when a gunfight erupted between striking workers and the security guards the company had brought in to protect the plant. The History Channel’s portrayal of this event was probably the low point of the entire eight hour The Men Who Built America miniseries. It was pure fiction.

That’s a shame, because the truth is far more interesting than the fictitious version the History Channel saw fit to broadcast.

The violence at Homestead was painfully embarrassing to Carnegie, who had always been guilty of a certain level of hypocrisy on labor-management issues. In public he tended to give lip service to semi-Marxist ideas about the rights of the proletariat, but the way he ran his business generally contradicted the principles he so publicly espoused.  In that he had much in common with modern day billionaires like George Soros and Warren Buffett.

Several times over the years leading up to the Homestead strike Carnegie had made pro-union comments, particularly on the issue of employers hiring strikebreakers. On one occasion, in a comment ironically foreshadowing the behavior of his own employees at Homestead, he said that no worker could be expected to “stand peaceably and see a new man employed in his stead.” When confronted with that prospect at Homestead, the Carnegie workers were far from peaceful, and Carnegie showed little sympathy.

Carnegie’s conflicted stance on labor relations issues is perhaps best illustrated by his 1877 attempt to convert the standard work week of the steel industry from seven twelve-hour days per week to seven eight-hour days.

Carnegie and his partners only owned one steel mill at this time, the Edgar Thompson Steel works, popularly known as the E.T. Plant manager William Jones convinced Carnegie that if the started using three eight hour shifts per day rather than two twelves, their competitors would follow suit, and the eight hour day would become the standard of the industry. Carnegie was all for making the workers’ lives easier, as long as it didn’t give his competitors an advantage.

Carnegie let Jones implement the change, and for what he thought would be a short time the E.T. was the only steel mill in the country running three shifts. Ten years later the E.T. was still the only one, and Carnegie, who always obsessed about having lower production costs than his competitors, over-rode Jones and converted the E.T. back to a two shift rotation. The E.T. workers promptly went out on strike.

During this 1887 strike at the E.T., Carnegie refused to hire strikebreakers, and let the plant lie idle until the workers accepted his terms. There was no other plant in the country where the workers could hire on for an eight hour shift, so after four months of unemployment they accepted the inevitable and went back to work.

Things would be different during the 1892 Homestead strike.

In the early 1880’s Carnegie stepped back from day-to-day management and started spending roughly half of each year in a castle in Scotland. He owned more than 50% of the Carnegie Steel stock, so he always had ultimate control over the company, but he entrusted the everyday management to his junior partners. By the summer of 1892 Carnegie had appointed a partner named Henry Clay Frick Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive, with control of all of the company’s iron and steel mills.

Before Carnegie left the US in the spring of ’92 he met with Frick specifically to discuss the upcoming negotiations with the Amalgamated Association (or AA), the union that represented eight hundred skilled steelworkers at the Homestead plant. The AA’s current contract was to expire at the end of June, and Carnegie and Frick agreed that the terms of employment for these men would have to change.

The factory employed some three thousand relatively unskilled workers who were paid on a straight hourly basis, and none of them belonged to the union. The AA had always refused to accept unskilled laborers as members, even when pressured to do so by the Knights of Labor.

The skilled steelmakers were always better paid than the unskilled workers, both before and after the strike, for obvious reasons. What caused such a bloody confrontation in 1892 was  the question of just how much better their compensation would be. Under the old contract the AA members were paid a bonus for every billet produced. The size of the bonus was scaled to the price the company was able to get when it sold the steel. In June of ’92, as the old contract was about to expire, Frick proposed to modify the scale downward.

In the three years since the old contract was signed the company had spent a great deal of money on new equipment to increase the productivity of the plant, thus allowing the workers to produce more billets with less work. From Frick and Carnegie’s point of view, they had spent the company’s resources to make skilled labor more expensive by increasing the number of billet bonuses they had to pay. To them it seemed fair to lower the scale.

The AA, to its credit, was willing to discuss some reduction in the scale; but the deep cuts Frick proposed were unacceptable.

Shortly before the June 30 deadline Frick closed the plant and locked out the AA  members. Immediately the three thousand hourly workers went on strike in support of the union members. I’ve read any number of accounts of the Homestead strike, and for some reason nothing I’ve been able to find offers any explanation of why the hourly workers were so devoted to the much more highly compensated AA workers.

The hourly workers had nothing at stake in the dispute. Frick was not threatening to cut their pay, nor was anyone offering to increase it. I would love to read some explanation of why the hourly men where willing to sacrifice their meager paychecks for the duration of the strike, and even participate in a gunfight against security guards, just so the plant’s elite could earn bigger bonuses.

At any rate things quickly turned ugly after the strike started. Frick had anticipated the possibility of vandalism and violence. Fifteen years earlier Striking railroad workers in the same city had killed several people and done such damage to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s infrastructure that the railroad too badly crippled to re-hire many of the workers when the strike was over. Frick knew that angry proletarians don’t always behave rationally.

Before the lock-out started Frick put up a strong barricade all around the plant, pierced with gun loopholes and topped with barbed wire. His intention was to keep the physical plant from being damaged or destroyed while the strike went on. He also had plans to bring in strikebreakers, despite any public statements his boss might have made on the subject.

Frick placed advertisements for strikebreakers American and European newspapers. As soon as the strike started he sent for three hundred Pinkerton guards to protect the mill, and to protect the safety of the strike-breakers he planned on hiring.

The Pinkerton men arrived in a barge, and the strikers were waiting for them, having been alerted by scouts who were patrolling the river in a steamboat. By the time the Pinkerton barge landed, the workers had torn down a part of the barricade and over-run the factory. Several thousand strikers and supporters were arrayed on the hills above the river, armed with rifles, dynamite, and even a cannon. The strikers, who had already been shooting at the barge as it came upriver, opened fire in earnest when first Pinkerton man set foot on the gangplank to leave the boat. The badly outnumbered guards hunkered down inside the barge and returned fire through the windows.

The thing that probably saved the Pinkerton guards from mass slaughter was the lack of military expertise among the strikers. They blew up their cannon through a loading error, and failed to get any of their dynamite bombs to detonate on the barge. They dumped oil in the river and tried to ignite it, but failed. The shooting stopped when the Pinkertons raised a white flag and a union leader came onto the barge to negotiate terms of the Pinkertons’ surrender.

The union promised the men safe passage out of town if they would turn over their arms and surrender. The Pinkertons agreed. As soon as the now-unarmed security guards filed out, the strikers armed themselves with bits of scrap iron and other weapons and formed a gauntlet. Despite the truce agreement, the workers beat three of the Pinkertons to death and injured all of them to some extent. Those who lived put themselves under the protection of local authorities until they could arrange transportation out of the area.

On July 11 the state governor sent eight thousand soldiers of the state militia to Homestead to restore order. The factory, which hadn’t suffered any significant damage, was turned over to Carnegie Steel management. Frick brought in enough strikebreakers to put together a skeleton crew, and re-opened the mill. Most of the strikers came back to work over time, and the power of the union was broken.

On July 23 a political radical who had no real connection to the Homestead workers tried to murder Henry Clay Frick. A self-described “communist anarchist” named Alexander Berkman burst into Frick’s office armed with a revolver and a home-made knife and shot Frick twice at close range before another executive could wrestle his gun away. As the wounded Frick tried to help subdue him, Berkman stabbed Frick three times, and then tried to blow himself up by biting down on a capsule of fulminate of mercury.

Berkman’s lover, Emma Goldman, had helped plan the attack as a way to rouse the American proletariat against the established order. The plan was for Berkman to kill Frick and then hang for it, at which time Goldman would make a martyr of him in the magazine she published. (ACLU founder Roger Baldwin would later name Goldman as one of his political mentors.)

The attack on Frick backfired on Goldman and Berkman. As the police led Berkman away from his office Frick calmly sat in a chair at his desk while a surgeon removed the bullets from his body, then took care of some urgent paperwork before allowing himself to be led to an ambulance. Before leaving he wrote a letter to the press that demonstrated his resolve: “I do not think I shall die, but whether I do or not, the company will pursue the same policy and it will win.”

Frick’s coolness under fire turned  out to be a propaganda coup for the company. Where Berkman was trying to start a worker’s revolution, he ended up helping Carnegie Steel win the support of the general public to some extent.

The television version of the events at Homestead was so far removed from the truth that it’s not worth rebutting. Like everything else in the Men Who Built America series, it was fiction masquarading as fact.

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