The Homestead Strike
Henry Clay Frick was one of Pittsburgh’s toughest and most notorious CEOs in history. The grandson of Henry Clay, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives known as “The Great Compromiser,” his father was hopeless at business. However, the younger Henry took after his mother’s father, who ran a successful distillery. His business acumen brought him wealth, and brought him into the gaze of Andrew Carnegie. Frick was soon Carnegie’s right hand man. Frick was one of the managing partners of the Carnegie Company until 1889, when Carnegie retired from active management and Frick was elected chairman. In 1892, he introduced a more centralized management system that improved efficiency and made them money hand over fist. He was one of the principle players in the development of the Southfork Fishing and Hunting Club, which caused the Johnstown Flood.
Also in 1892, Frick was faced with a terrible problem. The American economy had hit a downturn, and conflicts between management and labor were cropping up in all industries. The steel industry was not immune. Because of the downturn, Frick announced that wages were to be cut. The steel workers were working in dangerous conditions and barely making enough to keep their heads above water. They would starve, but Frick needed profits. The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers protested, but Frick was bound and determined to break their power. After the wage cut was announced, the workers responded by hanging Frick in effigy. They were not going quietly. Carnegie gave Frick a free hand to deal with the workers if the union would not agree to the wage cuts, and so in June of 1892 he started closing open hearth and armor-plate mills, locking out 1,100 men. He said he would no longer negotiate with the unions, only with the workers. Workers attempted to contact Carnegie, who had given lip service to the right to unionize, but were informed he was on vacation in Scotland. They would have to deal with Frick.
At the steel mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania, Frick built a fence three miles long and 12 feet high, adding peepholes for rifles and topping it with barbed wire. Workers named the fence “Fort Frick.” He tried to get the sherrif’s deputies to man it, but the workers drove them off. They started manning the battlements at the steel mill. Historian Paul Krause explained, “They believed that in some way the property had become theirs. Not that it wasn’t Andrew Carnegie’s, not that they were the sole proprietors of the mill, but that they had an entitlement in the mill. And I think in a fundamental way the conflict at Homestead in 1892 was about these two conflicting views of property.” This was not to be tolerated, so Frick brought in the Pinkertons. The Pinkerton Detective Agency was at that time essentially a mercenary army that fought for the highest bidder. Frick had the cash to bring them in.
On July 5, 1892, tugboats pulled barges carrying hundreds of Pinkerton detectives armed with Winchester rifles up the Monongahela River to the steel mill. A Pittsburgh journalist wrote that at about 3 A.M. a “horseman riding at breakneck speed dashed into the streets of Homestead giving the alarm as he sped along.” The workers were roused and they met the Pinkertons on the shore telling them to clear off and not to land. Reports differ as to who shot first, but the Pinkertons did get off their barges and it became a free for all. The firefight lasted 14 hours. Flaming train cars were pushed into the barges, and oil was poured into the river to set the water on fire. Eventually, the Pinkertons lost three men and had to retreat, but it was a short lived victory.
Ten men were killed and 60 wounded and order was restored only when the governor placed Homestead under martial law. The Pennsylvania militia marched in armed with the latest in rifles and Gatling guns. The workers stood no chance, and the militia soon took over the steel mill. Scabs were brought in to work in closed train cars so they could not know where they were going. Not long after on July 23, 1892, Alexander Berkman entered Frick’s downtown Pittsburgh office. He carried a revolver and a sharpened steel file. As Frick rose from his office chair, Berkman shot Frick at point blank range twice- once in the ear, penetrating his neck near the base of the skull, and lodging in his back, and again in the neck. He was wrestled to the ground, but not before stabbing Frick four times in the leg. Frick survived and was back to work in a week, and Berkman was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 22 years in prison.
The negative publicity from the assassination attempt coupled with lack of resources broke the Homestead strike. After four months the men had no choice but to report back to work. Wages were cut and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Approximately 2,500 men lost their jobs, and most of the workers who stayed had their wages halved. The Strike Committee was brought up on charges of treason, but were acquitted. Even so, their lives were ruined as they were blacklisted from ever working in steel again. They had lost their livelihood. And the struggle for a fair workplace continued.
Sources available on request