coHomestead Strike 1892; nineteenth century; Andrew Carnegie; Carnegie Steel Company; steel workers' strike; Henry Clay Frick;Emma Goldman; Alexander Berkman; USA
The Homestead Strike 1892
The following extracts from Louis Adamic, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman describe the Homestead Strike in 1892, and the circumstances of Berkman’s shooting of Henry Clay Frick, the head of the Carnegie Steel Company’s strike-breaking operation. This webpage was created to provide background information to the Flowers for Homestead action in summer 2000.
Document One: from Dynamite: a century of class violence in America 1830–1930, Louis Adamic, 1934 (reprinted by Rebel Press, London, 1984)
In 1892 there burst out the fury of the so-called Homestead strike, which was really a lockout, involving on the one hand the iron and steel workers, who, with a membership of nearly 25,000, were one of the strongest unions in the country, and on the other the Carnegie Steel Company. Three years previously the union had been recognized by the company; indeed, had entered with it into a three-year contract, at the expiration of which Carnegie wanted the men to take a reduction of wages. The union declined these terms and on 1 July, before they could declare a strike, the workers were suddenly locked out.
Before that occurred, however, Andrew Carnegie, already famous as a major prophet of American ‘democracy’, anticipating violence, had hurriedly turned the command over to the company’s superintendent, Henry C Frick, a frank and brutal union-hater, and departed for Europe.
Frick immediately indicated by his action that he meant war to the bitter end. He erected a wire fence three miles long and 15 feet high around the works and called upon the Pinkerton Detective Agency to send him 300 gunmen.
The locked-out workers heard that the Pinkertons were coming, and they watched for their arrival. They knew that the gunmen would be armed and prepared themselves to meet them on their own terms. On the night of 5 july, a boatload of Pinkertons attempted to land in Homestead. A battle followed, in which 10 men were killed and three times that number wounded. At the end the workers got the better of the gunmen, captured the entire 300, minus the few who were killed, held them prisoners of war for 24 hours, and finally ran them, disarmed, out of town.
Incensed, Frick then called upon the governor of the state of Pennsylvania for the militia and within a few days the little mill town of 12,000 was an armed camp. The soldiers stayed till the end of November, when the strike officially ended in the utter defeat of the workers. The union’s treasury was empty; winter was coming on, and families were going cold and hungry. In desperation, workers returned to work as non-unionists.
But Frick did not win the battle unscathed. There was then in the United States a young anarchist, Alexander Berkman… lover of Emma Goldman, who, on hearing of the gun-fight between the steel men and the Pinkertons, hastened to Homestead and there burst into Frick’s office.
Document Two: from Living my Life, Emma Goldman 1931
It was May 1892. News from Pittsburgh announced that trouble had broken out between the Carnegie Steel Company and its employees organized in the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. It was one of the biggest and most efficient labour bodies of the country, consisting mostly of Americans, men of decision and grit, who would assert their rights. The Carnegie Company, on the other hand, was a powerful corporation, known as a hard master. It was particularly significant that Andrew Carnegie, its president, had temporarily turned over the entire management to the company’s chairman, Henry Clay Frick, a man known for his enmity to labour. Frick was also the owner of extensive coke-fields, where unions were prohibited and the workers were ruled with an iron hand.
The high tariff on imported steel had greatly boomed the American steel industry. The Carnegie Company had practically a monopoly of it and enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. Its largest mills were in Homestead, near Pittsburgh, where thousands of workers were employed, their tasks requiring long training and high skill. Wages were arranged between the company and the union, according to a sliding scale based on the prevailing market price of steel products. The current agreement was about to expire, and the workers presented a new wage schedule, calling for an increase because of the higher market prices and enlarged output of the mills.
The philanthropic Andrew Carnegie conveniently retired to his castle in Scotland, and Frick took full charge of the situation. He declared that henceforth the sliding scale would be abolished. The company would make no more agreements with the Amalgamated Association; it would itself determine the wages to be paid. In fact, he would not recognize the union at all. He would not treat with the employees collectively, as before. He would close the mills, and the men might consider themselves discharged. Thereafter they would have to apply for work individually, and the pay would be arranged with every worker separately. Frick curtly refused the peace advances of the workers’ organization, declaring that there was “ nothing to arbitrate.” Presently the mills were closed. “Not a strike, but a lock out,” Frick announced. It was an open declaration of war.
Feeling ran high in Homestead and vicinity. The sympathy of the entire country was with the men. Even the most conservative part of the press condemned Frick for his arbitrary and drastic methods. They charged him with deliberately provoking a crisis that might as. sume national proportions, in view of the great numbers of men locked out by Frick’s action, and the probable effect upon affiliated unions and on related industries.
Labour throughout the country was aroused. The steel-workers declared that they were ready to take up the challenge of Frick: they would insist on their right to organize and to deal collectively with their employers. Their tone was manly, ringing with the spirit of their rebellious forebears of the Revolutionary War…
We continued our daily work, waiting on customers, frying pancakes, serving tea and ice cream; but our thoughts were in Homestead, with the brave steel workers. We became so absorbed in the news that we would not permit ourselves enough time even for sleep. At daybreak one of the boys would be off to get the first editions of the papers. We saturated ourselves with the events in Homestead to the exclusion of everything else. Entire nights we would sit up discussing the various phases of the situation, almost engulfed by the possibilities of the gigantic struggle.
One afternoon a customer came in for an ice-cream, while I was alone in the store. As I set the dish down before him, I caught the large headlines of his paper: “LATEST DEVELOPMENTS IN HOMESTEAD — FAMILIES OF STRIKERS EVICTED FROM THE COMPANY HOUSES — WOMAN IN CONFINEMENT CARRIED OUT INTO STREET BY SHERIFFS.” I read over the man’s shoulder Frick’s dictum to the workers: he would rather see them dead than concede to their demands, and he threatened to import Pinkerton detectives. The brutal bluntness of the account, the inhumanity of Frick towards the evicted mother, inflamed my mind. Indignation swept my whole being. I heard the man at the table ask: “Are you sick, young lady? Can I do anything for you?” “Yes, you can let me have your paper,” I blurted out. “You won’t have to pay me for the ice-cream. But I must ask you to leave. I must close the store.” The man looked at me as if I had gone crazy…
A few days after our return to New York the news was flashed across the country of the slaughter of steel-workers by Pinkertons. Frick had fortified the Homestead mills, built a high fence around them. Then, in the dead of night, a barge packed with strike-breakers, under protection of heavily armed Pinkerton thugs, quietly stole up the Monongahela River. The steel-men had learned of Frick’ s move. They stationed themselves along the shore, determined to drive back Frick’s hirelings. When the barge got within range, the Pinkertons had opened fire, without warning, killing a number of Homestead men on the shore, among them a little boy, and wounding scores of others. The wanton murders aroused even the daily papers. Several came out in strong editorials, severely criticizing Frick. He had gone too far; he had added fuel to the fire in the labour ranks and would have himself to blame for any desperate acts that might come.
We were stunned. We saw at once that the time for our manifesto had passed. Words had lost their face of the meaning in the innocent blood spilled on the banks of the Monongahela. Intuitively each felt what was surging in the heart of the others. Sasha [Alexander Berkman] broke the silence. Frick is the responsible factor in this crime,” he said; “ he must be made to stand the consequences.” It was the psychological moment for an Attentat; the whole country was aroused, everybody was considering Frick the perpetrator of a coldblooded murder. A blow aimed at Frick would re-echo in the poorest hovel, would call the attention of the whole world to the real cause behind the Homestead struggle. It would also strike terror in the enemy’s ranks and make them realize that the proletariat of America had its avengers.
On July 23 1862, Alexander ‘Sasha’ Berkman shot Frick (described below). Frick was injured but survived and Berkman was overpowered and arrested at the scene, later sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Several days after the Attentat militia regiments were marched into Homestead. The more conscious of the steel-workers opposed the move, but they were overruled by the conservative labour element, who foolishly saw in the soldiers protection against new attacks by Pinkertons. The troops soon proved whom they came to protect. It was the Carnegie mills, not the Homestead workers.
However, there was one militiaman who was wide awake enough to see in Sasha the avenger of labour’s wrongs. This brave boy gave vent to his feelings by calling in the ranks for “three cheers for the man who shot Frick.” He was court-martialled and strung up by his thumbs, but he stuck to his cheers. This incident was the one bright moment in the black and harassing days that followed Sasha’s departure.
Document Three: from Alexander Berkman, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, 1912
The door of Frick’s private office, to the left of the reception room, swings open as the coloured attendant emerges, and I snatch a flitting glimpse of a black-bearded, well-knit figure at a table at the back of the room.
‘Mistah Frick is engaged. He can’t see you now, sah,’ the Negro says, handing me back my card.
I take the pasteboard, return it to my case, and walk slowly out of the reception-room. But quickly retracing my steps, I pass through the gate separating the clerks from the visitors, and, brushing the astounded attendant aside, I step into the office on the left, and find myself facing Frick.
For an instant the sunlight, streaming through the windows, dazzles me. I discern two men at the further end of the long table. ‘Fr—’ I begin. The look of terror on his face strikes me speechless. It is the dread of the conscious presence of death. ‘He understands,’ it flashes through my mind. With a quick motion I draw the revolver. As I raise the weapon, I see Frick clutch with both hands the arm of the chair, and attempt to rise. I aim at his head. ‘Perhaps he wears armour,’ I reflect. With a look of horror he quickly averts his face, as I pull the trigger. There is a flash, and the high-ceilinged room reverberates as with the booming of cannon. I hear a sharp, piercing cry and see Frick on his knees, his head against the arm of the chair.
For a recent commemoration of Homestead in London see Flowers for Homestead at Dulwich Picture Gallery
For another account of the strike placing it in the context of late 19th century class struggle see:
For an account with some illustrations see: