Homestead Strike, The
DESCRIPTION: "We are asking one another as we pass the time of day Why men must have recourse to arms to get their proper pay." The union workers go on strike; the company hires Pinkertons to break it. The result is bloodshed
AUTHOR: J. W. Kelly?
EARLIEST DATE: 1940 (Korson-PennLegends)
KEYWORDS: labor-movement fight hardtimes strike
July 1, 1892 - Declaration of the Homestead Strike (one of many strikes taking place about this time). The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers strikes Carnegie's Homestead Steel Works in Pennsylvania, trying to win the right to collective bargaining.
Relations between the Union and management has, until this time, been fairly good, but manager Henry Clay Frick decided the expiration of the current contract was a good opportunity to break the union. He cut wages and refused to negotiate.
July 6, 1892 - Frick brings in 300 Pinkertons (the "paid detectives" of the song) to battle the strikers and relatives (who number about 5000). Twenty people were killed in the ensuing battle, in which the Pinkertons were repelled (and, without exception, injured)
July 9, 1892 - Frick convinces Pennsylvania Governor Pattison to send in 7000 militia to break the strike
July 15, 1892 - Despite appeals from all over the world (including President Cleveland), the Homestead Mill is re-opened by scabs
Nov 14, 1892 - The Homestead workers give up their strike. They have made no real gains (except in public opinion), and many have lost their jobs to scabs
FOUND IN: US(MW)
REFERENCES (6 citations):
Korson-PennLegends, pp. 443-446, "The Homestead Strike" (1 text, 1 tune)
Peters, p. 183, "The Homestead Strike" (1 short text, 1 tune, informant and date unknown)
Grimes, p. 22, "The Homestead Strike" (1 short text)
Cohen-AFS1, pp. 156-157, "The Homestead Strike" (1 text)
Gilbert, pp. 198-199, "A Fight for Home and Honor " (1 text)
Pete Seeger, "Homestead Strike Song" (on PeteSeeger47)
cf. "Father Was Killed by the Pinkerton Men" (subject)
NOTES: The Homestead Strike was one of the bitterest labor disputes in American history, as shown by both this song and "Father Was Killed by the Pinkerton Men."
A contemporary account gives this summary description (Jameson, p. 310):
Homestead Riots. On the final refusal of the workingmen's association to accept certain changes in the wage scale, the proprietors of the Carnegie Steel Mills, at Homestead, PA., closed the works July 1, 1892. The employes declared a strike about the same time. A mob prevented the sheriff from placing pickets in the mills. July 6 a body of 300 Pinkerton detectives arrived. A bloody fight between these men and the strikers immediately took place, resulting in considerable loss on both sides. The Pinkertons surrendered. The Pennsylvania militia was then ordered out and remained at Homestead to protect the mills. Many of the strikers were arrested and indictments were found against them."
Note that this description (written no later than 1894) reters to the events as "riots."
The Homestead Iron Works was partly owned by Andrew Carnegie but was run by Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), who was a robber baron's robber baron. PresElections, p. 1725, describes his behavior: "The management's contract with skilled workers was to expire on June 30 [,1892]. Despite apparent national prosperity, Frock lowered the wage rates of about one-sixth of the labor force in proposed new contracts. His refusal to negotiate, or accept full unionization produced a strike and over-reaction on both sides early in July. Strikers left the building talking of violence; management locked out employees. Barbed wire, observation towers, and private guards, later including Pinkertons, protected strikebreakers."
The strike was so bitter that Nevins/Commager, p. 327, refer to "a pitched battle on the banks of the Monongahela."
Unfortunately for workers, a quirk of fate turned the public against them. On July 23, a nut named Alexander Berkman attempted to assassinate Frick. Berkman injured but did not kill Frick, and the public blamed the union even though Berkman was a lone wolf who had nothing to do with the Homestead laborers (PresElections, pp. 1725-1726). Frick went on to give $25,000 to the re-election campaign of President Benjamin Harrison, whose administration had refused to intervene.
The strike was doomed, especially since strikebreakers had succeeded in resuming partial production at the mill. Eventually, after months of struggle and suffering, the strikers gave in. Many lost their jobs, and the remainder had to accept Frick's pay cuts. All they had succeeded in doing was leaving a blot on people's memories which would still be remembered two generations later (Hofstadter, p. 244).
Grimes has a different take on the Homestead Strike, referring it to a "mine fire stared in 1884 near New Straitsville, a town just south of Zanesville in Perry County[, Ohio]." I can see no reason in the Grimes version to support this supposition, although it is not inherently impossible. - RBW
Last updated in version 3.2
- Hofstadter: Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, Vintage, 1955
- Jameson: J. Franklin Jameson's Dictionary of United States History 1492-1895, Puritan Press, 1894
- Nevins/Commager: Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager, A Short History of the United States, Fifth Edition, Borzoi, 1942-1966
- PresElections: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Fred L. Israel, and William P. Hansen, editors, History of American Presidential Elections, Volume II (1848-1896), Chelsea House, 1971
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