From the Archives 5: The labor riot that (maybe) gave us CMU
Note: This week, I didn't use any resources from the University Archives since this event predates the opening of our school by over a decade. For this article, I used two biographies — "Andrew Carnegie" by David Nasaw (2006) and "Andrew Carnegie" by Joseph Frazier Wall (1970). For clarity, I will refer to each book by the name of the author, not the title.
In 1892, Andrew Carnegie’s reputation was damaged by a violent confrontation at the Homestead Steel Mill. In the fight for control of the factory, ten people were shot and killed, including seven steel workers and three armed mercenaries from the Pinkerton detective agency. A few years later, Carnegie would sell his company and begin donating heavily to public works in order to rehabilitate his image and secure his legacy as a beneficent philanthropist. Here, I will argue that this disastrous labor riot exposed Carnegie as a hypocrite, and that we may owe the very existence of Carnegie Mellon to this event.
The Homestead Steel Mill was the crown jewel of Carnegie’s empire — it was the largest and most technologically advanced steel mill in the country. However, of Carnegie’s three primary steel mills in Pittsburgh (the other two being the Edgar Thomson Steel Works in Braddock and the Duquesne Steel Works), it was the only one with substantial union membership. The skilled workers at Homestead were represented by the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. This union had recently won a strike in 1889, which effectively gave them control over working conditions at Homestead.
Carnegie noticed that the profits from Homestead were not as high as they ought to be, and he had his company perform an audit of the plant. Unsurprisingly, the Homestead workers, backed by Amalgamated, were being paid well than the industry average. However, the union’s labor contract was set to expire on July 2, 1892, and both Carnegie and Frick had no desire to see it renewed.
The plan was simple. As Nasaw describes, “The firm would make impossible demands. When the union rejected them, the company would cut off negotiations, close the works, lock out the workers, secure the plant with sheriff’s deputies and/or Pinkertons, and then, after an indeterminate pause, reopen under armed protection. The workers would be invited to sign individual contracts and return to their jobs; those who refused would be replaced by scabs”. Carnegie left for his summer estate, Skibo Castle in Scotland, in April of 1892. Before leaving, he gave Frick a blank check to break the union at Homestead. On May 23, he wrote, “No doubt you will get Homestead right… You can get anything right with your ‘mild persistence.’”
The union, of course, rejected the appalling terms of the new contract, and Frick put up notices around the plant, declaring that, “Amalgamated having turned down its final offer, the firm would have nothing more to do with it.” Knowing what was to come, the company put up barricades, barbed wire, gun nests, search lights, and water cannons around the massive Homestead mill — now dubbed “Fort Frick.” On Wednesday, June 29, Frick shut down the plant and locked out the workers. At the same time, 300 guards from the Pinkerton detective agency were traveling in from Philadelphia as “a measure of precaution.”
With Carnegie on the other side of the Atlantic staying in contact via telegraph, he and Frick expected to execute their plan with minimal resistance. This tactic had proven effective in the past. But perhaps one thing they underestimated was the ferocity with which the people of Homestead were willing to defend their plant. The Homestead steel works employed 4,000 workers in a town of 12,000, and for many townspeople it was a point of pride. Nasaw writes, “Should they lose [their jobs], they would have to pull up stakes and leave the town and mill they had built.”
At 2:30 a.m. on July 6, two barges carrying the Pinkertons were spotted from downtown Pittsburgh, and a telegraph was sent to Homestead. In response, “a crowd of townspeople, workers, women, and children … surged toward the riverbank, tearing down the fence that separated the town proper from the works.” The barges arrived at Homestead hours later, where they found a crowd of townspeople shouting at them not to land. The Pinkertons, armed with 300 pistols and 250 Winchester rifles, landed regardless. Shots were fired, and Pinkertons fled back to their barge. Three steelworkers were killed, and one Pinkerton was killed. At 8 a.m., they attempted a second landing — three more workers and another Pinkerton were killed. Anchored on the opposite side of the Monongahela, the workers tried to burn down the Pinkerton barge by increasingly desperate means. Nasaw says they tried floating rafts of burning oil and wood across the river. failing that, they tried to “pump oil into the river and set it afire.” At 5 p.m., the Pinkertons surrendered, under the condition that they would be safely brought to the town opera house to face trial. Despite the attempts of union leaders to quell the rage of the crowd, many of the Pinkertons were beaten bloody by the townspeople on their trek from the shore to the opera house. After four tense days of workers occupying the plant, Governor Robert Pattison finally mobilized the Pennsylvania National Guard, and on July 12, troops bloodlessly retook the plant and town. The plant reopened shortly, operated by strikebreakers and defended by the militia. Since Amalgamated did not permit membership for Black workers, many of the strikebreakers were Black men who were willing to work for lower wages.
Homestead was an unmitigated disaster for Carnegie, and his attempts to pass off blame were ridiculed. Nasaw points out that Carnegie was well aware of Frick’s decision to involve the Pinkertons. “Carnegie would spend the rest of his life declaring in one form or another that he would have handled the Homestead strikers differently had he been on site. He knew from the very beginning that Frick intended to call in the Pinkertons and had no objections.” Wall quotes the Edinburgh Dispatch, which scathingly wrote of the incident, “We on this side of the Atlantic, where the bitterest labour quarrels have never attained such a degree of intensity as exists at Pittsburgh, may well feel thankful that neither our capitalists nor our labourers have any inclination to imitate the methods which prevail in the land of ‘Triumphant Democracy.’” For Carnegie’s part, he repeatedly expressed remorse about the incident, writing, “nothing I have ever had to meet in all my life, before or since, wounded me so deeply...It was so unnecessary.”
So what was the aftermath? Carnegie’s transition to retirement was slow, as he continued to run his company at arm’s length while splitting his time between New York, Scotland, and Pittsburgh. While he had spent the years before Homestead grooming Frick to be his successor, relations between them began to sour. In 1900, Frick was voted off the board of Carnegie Steel and the two never spoke again. In 1901, Carnegie sold his company for 480 million dollars, and his retirement truly began. His philanthropic donations started with small contributions to Scottish universities, and endowments to help support long-time employees of his plants who were injured on the job. Homestead seems to have truly affected Carnegie. And whether it was out of altruism or self-interest, he wanted to make right with the world.
And of course as we all know, in 1900, Carnegie announced that he would fund the construction of a technical school in Pittsburgh, and five short years later, the Carnegie Technical Schools opened their doors to students. And 117 years after that, a student would write about all this in the school newspaper. So perhaps we have the people of Homestead to thank for making Carnegie feel guilty enough to build us a pretty nice university.