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Digital History ID 3194

 

In 1986, United States Steel, once the world's largest steel producer, closed down its mills in Homestead, Pa., six miles from Pittsburgh. It was slightly less than a hundred years since the epic clash between labor and management at the plant in 1892 that helped eliminate unions from the steel industry for more than four subsequent decades.

Originally built in 1880 and 1881 by local merchants, the Homestead Works was purchased by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who installed open-hearth furnaces and electricity in order to boost the plant's efficiency and reduce the need for skilled labor. Carnegie's steel mills produced armor for battleships, rails for western railroads, and beams, girders, and steel plates for bridges and skyscrapers.

Carnegie's drive for efficiency also led to an armed confrontation at Homestead. In contract talks in 1892, Henry Clay Frick, the superintendent of the Carnegie Steel Company, proposed to cut workers' wages, arguing that increased efficiency had inflated salaries. At the time, unskilled mill workers, who were mainly eastern European immigrants, made less than $1.70 for a 12-hour day. Skilled workers earned between $4 and $7.60 a day. Frick also wanted to eliminate the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers union from the plant.

When the negotiations broke down, Frick shut down the mill, installed three-miles of wooden fence topped with barbed wire around the mill, and hired 300 guards supplied by the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The guards were placed aboard two company barges in Pittsburgh for the trip up the Monongahela River to nearby Homestead.

On July 6, the guards were confronted by hundreds of workers and townsfolk. In the gun battle that ensued, seven workers and three Pinkerton guards were killed. Twelve hours after the battle for Homestead began, the guards surrendered.

The union's apparent victory was short-lived. Within days, 8,500 members of the National Guard took control of the plant. When Frick was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt in his Pittsburgh office, public opinion turned against the steel workers' union. By November, the union had been broken and the mill had reopened as a non-union plant using African American and eastern European workers. Union leaders were blacklisted from the steel industry for life.

One of the strike's consequences was that the steel mills shifted from an eight hour to a 12-hour a day, six-day work week, with a 24-hour shift (followed by a day off), every two weeks. It would be some 44 years before the steel industry would again be unionized.

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