Andrew Carnegie and the Homestead Strike in 1892
Andrew Carnegie, one of America’s greatest business titans, is famed for not only building the greatest steel empire ever known in U.S. history, but he was also known for being extremely generous. Carnegie spent his last two decades giving out more than $350 million of his money to charitable causes, including building a staggering number of public libraries in the U.S. and across the world.
Carnegie frequently stated his unshakable support for trade unions; however, his behavior towards his workers left much to be desired. This was very evident in the way he ruthlessly eliminated union workers from his steel mills. The event that epitomizes Carnegie’s anti-union sentiment came in 1892, when clashes between striking union workers and hired Pinkerton agents clashed. Known as the 1892 Homestead Strike, the clash left at least 10 people dead.
In the article below, we explore Scottish-American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s relationship with the unions, including the events before, during and after the Homestead Strike in 1892.
Quick biography of Andrew Carnegie
Born in a small village in Scotland in 1835, Andrew Carnegie’s life story is one of rags to riches. Prior to all the millions of dollars that he accumulated in his later life, Carnegie and his family lived in abject poverty in Scotland. In 1848, the family gathered their belongings and immigrated to the United States using a loan they took from a family member.
Carnegie, then 12, and his family settled in Pittsburgh where he and his father found employment in a cotton factory. It’s been said that Carnegie, who worked 12-hour days, took home about $1.20 a week. However, with hard work and dedication, the young Scottish-born was able to work his way up to the position of division superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.
From then onward, the rest they say is history. Carnegie’s vast network of influential players in the railroad, iron, oil and coal industries allowed him to make lucrative investments.
Carnegie and trade unions
By his mid-30s, Carnegie had turned around his personal finances, becoming a rising investor in the railroad and iron market. By the late 19th century, he had established a steel empire (Carnegie Steel Company) on a never-before-seen scale in the United States. Opened in 1875, Carnegie’s first steel mill would go on to be a leading figure in the Gilded Age (i.e. the very prosperous years following the end of the Civil War up until the turn of the 20th century).
However, there was a spanner in the works of Carnegie’s steel empire. The Pittsburgh-based industrialist struggled to handle the agitations of labor union. While other executives in the industry grappled with the new labor rules in industry, Carnegie used the print media to feign his complete support for labor unions.
Andrew Carnegie and the Homestead Strike in 1892
Carnegie was proclaimed as the champion of downtrodden workers in his steel empire. Following the death of police officer during the Haymarket Riot* on May 4, 1886, Carnegie went against the general anti-labor sentiments in the industry to declare his support for the labor unions. He publicly stated that trade unions were “beneficial both to labor and capital”.
However, in reality it was all a public façade to mask what actually transpired in Carnegie’s steel mills. In 1892, the public got a glimpse of just how ruthless Carnegie’s management team was towards union workers during the Homestead Strike. The management at Carnegie Steel were seen by the unions as sinister industrialists and executive who used all their might to shortchange the public and exploit the workers.
Carnegie’s use of strikebreakers
Contrary to the statements he put out in the public of his support for trade unions, the steel magnate opposed the formation of unions in any of his steel mill. On numerous occasions, he employed the services of strikebreakers to root out every trace of union-enthusiasts in his factories.
Carnegie’s fight against eight-hour shifts
The reason why Carnegie, like many of his fellow industrialists, opposed trade unions was that unions tended to agitate for increased wages, which in turn caused production cost to go up. His goal was to operate his empire as efficient as possible so that those gains could be passed on to customers as reduced prices. To achieve this, he compelled his workers to work very long hours, way beyond the eight-hour work day that the trade unions were fighting for.
Carnegie tasked his management team to bring back the 12-hour work shifts. The workers were further outraged by Carnegie’s decision to tie their wages to the price of steel. After months of negotiations between management and the workers, management prevailed and imposed those poor working conditions on the workers.
Events that led to the Homestead Strike in 1892
In 1883, Carnegie, as part of his efforts to consolidate his gains in the steel industry, acquired the Homestead steel mill, located near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s been estimated that he invested millions of U.S. Dollars bringing the mill up to par with industry standards. In a few years, the Homestead plant had grown to be an important part of Carnegie’s business empire.
Upon purchasing the Homestead mill, Carnegie set out to clip the immense power of his workers’ union – the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers.
In 1892, Carnegie informed the Homestead plant workers of his intention to keep only non-Union workers. Believing that the union workers would comply with those directives, Carnegie went to Scotland for his yearly vacation. He tasked the head of his management team, Henry Clay Frick, to see out a deal with the workers.
Under Frick’s leadership, Homestead mill became a battle ground that saw workers clash with management. Carnegie saw nothing wrong with Frick’s excessive use of force, stating his approval of his Frick’s negotiation tactics.
When the barbed wires and metal fencing failed to keep the aggrieved union workers at bay, Frick proceeded to enforce the management lock out with a group of hired Pinkerton agents. Frick ordered that only non-union workers be allowed to enter the factory’s premises.
Tensions between management of Homestead and union workers turned deadly when over 300 Pinkerton agents clashed with the union workers. A riot then ensued on July 6, 1892, leaving at least ten people dead, including seven union workers and three Pinkerton agents.
Fearing that the confrontation could blow into unmanageable proportions, top state officials, under the request of Frick, sent in the National Guard to maintain order in the area.
Once the dust had settled, the plant was operational and back under the control of Frick and his management team. The plant also temporarily replaced all the union workers.
By November 1892, striking union workers had no other option than to give in to the demands of Carnegie. The union workers went back to work with a 60 percent cut in their wages.
Carnegie had successfully out-muscled the union, the very group of people he claimed to have sympathy for.
The public backlash was immense as Carnegie had to deal with a damaged reputation. The steel magnate worked to fix that image by giving off the impression that he had nothing to do with Frick’s ruthless tactics. There were some labor activists and liberals in the media that stated that Carnegie intentionally took a vacation as he anticipated the union workers’ protest to turn deadly. This allowed him to later deny being involved in Frick’s decisions.
Correspondences between Frick and Carnegie showed that the latter was never kept in the dark throughout the entire incident. Carnegie was indeed the one pulling all the strings, while Frick took the backlash from the public.
How Andrew Carnegie tried to redeem his image using philanthropy
Carnegie was able to slightly fix his reputation with the extensive amounts of philanthropic works he did following his sale of Carnegie Steel (to banker and financier J.P. Morgan for close to half a billion dollars) in 1901. He spent the remainder of his life donating close to 90% of his wealth to charitable causes, including building over 2,400 public libraries in the U.S. and overseas.
Today, Carnegie is most remembered for his contributions to the American economy as well as his extremely generous philanthropic pursuits. The Homestead Strike of 1892, a dent on the legacy of Carnegie, rarely gets brought up when discussing the life and accomplishments of Andrew Carnegie. However, to the union workers that were employed in Carnegie’s empire, the business magnate and lover of libraries was anything but a saint.
Other facts about Andrew Carnegie
Wholeheartedly believing that books played a crucial role in turning him into the man that he became, Carnegie was inspired to fund the construction of over 2,800 libraries worldwide. His goal was to offer those benefits to young people, especially immigrant children in the U.S.
About 1,700 libraries were built by Carnegie across the United States. This feat of his made him the largest private individual investor in public libraries in the nation’s history. He spent about $60 million (about $1.6 billion in today’s dollars) building libraries. As a result he came to be known as the “Patron Saint of Libraries.”
His critics, especially those from labor unions, saw those philanthropic ventures as Carnegie’s way of making amends for his ruthless business practices in the past. Other critics of him saw those charitable causes as the magnate’s way of building self-gratifying monuments.
Carnegie started working in the U.S. as a bobbin boy in a cotton factory in Pennsylvania.