This week marks the 125th anniversary of the deadly Battle of Homestead of 1892. Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Frank Snyder traveled to Homestead to mark the occasion at a memorial service remembering the fallen workers. This transformational moment in the history of America’s working people remains a reminder to all of us of the damage inflicted by corporate greed and inequality.
The 1890s was a turbulent period which saw vast changes in the economy, politics, and overall society of the United States. Infamous Gilded Age tycoons– Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and Rockefeller– prospered handsomely while the majority of American workers became symbols of how the “other half” lives.
In Homestead, PA, the gap between the rich and the poor continued to grow wider and wider. Andrew Carnegie, owner of the Carnegie Steel Company, owned one of the largest and most profitable steel companies in the United States. Located a few miles from Pittsburgh, the Homestead Steel Mill was one of the largest of Carnegie’s mills. In 1892, the workers of the Homestead mill were represented by the powerful Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AA), a predecessor of the United Steelworkers. The contract between the AA and Carnegie Steel was set to expire on July 1. Carnegie gave his operations manager, Henry Clay Frick, permission to break the union before this deadline was reached.
Due to the recent increase in profits by 60%, the AA asked for wage increases, but Frick immediately countered with a 22% wage decrease. The union rejected the wage cut and Frick responded by locking out the workers and building a massive barbed wire fence around the Mill. On July 2, Frick fired all 3,800 workers and hired a force of 300 Pinkerton agents in anticipation of a fight. Four days later, the arrival of 300 Pinkertons led to a violent battle that resulted in 10 men’s deaths and hundreds of injuries.
Pennsylvania Governor Robert Pattinson ordered 8,500 National Guard soldiers to the strike site to subdue the workers and take back control. On July 12, the plant was turned over to the soldiers and the plant was working again by 15.
Today, many working people across Pennsylvania and around the world face ill-treatment at the hands of corporate greed. Working people deserve safe working conditions and fair, living wages. The very same asks of the brave union members who lost their lives in Homestead are still on the line today. In the following decades, Labor unions drove forward the movement for workers’ rights in the face tyranny. Carnegie and Frick thought they could break the union, but they did not count on not being able to break the human spirit of union solidarity. 125 years later, the United Steelworkers remain strong.