Thursday, July 5, 2012

After the Battle Ended

     One hundred twenty years ago, around 3 o'clock on the morning of July 6th, striking workers at the Homestead Works of Carnegie Steel, on the watch downriver from the mill, spied two large barges being hauled upstream by a single tug boat.  They spread the word by telegraph, steam whistle, and horse messenger.  By the time the barges reached the landing site at the Works two hours later, thousands of townspeople stood on the steep banks of the Monongahela River, determined to stop whomever--scabs or guards--from entering the mill.
     The workers did stop the Pinkerton guards on board from disembarking--the only time in American labor history that the workers held off militia during a confrontation.  But it took a ten-hour running gun battle to do so, ending with the deaths of nine strikers and seven Pinkerton guards (The exact number is disputed, but the total surely exceeded these numbers on both sides).
The battle as illustrated in the  National Police Gazette, July 23, 1892
     Most accounts of the 1892 Homestead Strike cover the events of 1892-93, but do not go into what happened to the town in the long run--except to say that the company successfully stopped union organizing in the steel industry for nearly 40 years. (A notable exception is William Serrin's 1993 work, Homestead: The Glory and Tragedy of an American Steel Town, which traces the history of the town up to the closing of the Works).  When Hamlin Garland visited Homestead in 1893, he found the town "squalid and unlovely," a casualty of the failure of the strike and the so-called Panic which had plunged the US into a severe depression.
     Nevertheless, some former strikers who were blacklisted from steelmaking  managed to find work and remain in town.  The descendents of two of these strikers are the Debolt family, which still operates a bus company out of Homestead, and my cousin Grace Jack Krepps.  In fact, Grace and her brother Ronnie are some of the few people who can say they had grandfathers on both sides of the Strike--Jack (striker) and Busch (replacement worker).
       Grace told me that after her Grandfather Jack lost his job in the Works, he found another at the Homestead water works.  He didn't want to have anything to do with steel making, but he did not stop his son David, Grace's father, from taking work in the mill.  Dave Jack became a roller, a skilled worker who shaped hot steel into finished products.
A rolling mill crew from the Homestead Works, 1906 (photo from Gaughan collection, U of Pittsburgh)
    During my first visit to New York City in 1955, my parents took me on a visit to the Empire State Building.  "Your Uncle Dave rolled the beams used to the build this," Dad said, pointing upward.  At that time, the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world, an engineering marvel that is still admired today.  I accepted Dad's word on faith, but found corroboration of this claim via a TV documentary about the construction of the building (1930-31).  The beams were on rush order from the Homestead Works, rolled in the structural mill and placed on fast freight trains headed for New York.  The delivery was so speedy that often the beams were still warm from rolling when they arrived at the building site.
The famous photo of a high-steel crew resting on one of the beams used to construct the Empire State Building. This is not Photoshopped.  The workers are hundreds of feet up, with no safety net or ropes. The death toll during the construction phase was one fatality per floor, with a total of over 100.
     Despite these success stories, however, the large majority of 1892 strikers were not re-hired and forced to look for work elsewhere, in another industry.  For example, John McLuckie, the former Homestead burgess and strike leader, wandered out West, eventually finding work as a foreman for the Sonoma Railroad in Mexico.  Who knows what happened to hundreds of other outcasts from the mill who left town, never to return?
       The descendents of those who replaced the strikers--myself included--understandably did not dwell on this aspect.  Everyone, unionist or scab, got the message of the strike's outcome:  Don't mess with H.C Frick and Carnegie Steel, for you will lose.  In those days, as now, property rights were held sacred in the United States.  Those who own the property can rely on the government at all levels-- local, state, and federal-- to send in troops to "restore order" in labor disputes, as they have countless times before and after the 1892 strike.
Federal troops fighting striking workers during the violent Railroad Strike of 1877.  Over a hundred people died, but the outcome was the same as with all 19th century strikes:  a victory for the company.
      The English critic and reformer John Ruskin, writing 42 years before the strike, observed: “In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it; they must not do too much of it; and they must have a sense of success in it.” (Pre-Raphaelitism, 1850)  By this yardstick, very few, if any, workers in the Homestead Works before or after the strike could have been happy.
     When those thousands of strikers and townspeople rushed down to the river to stop the Pinkertons in the early morning hours of July 6, 1892, they thought they were waging a just war against the company.  Whether or not their cause was seen as just depended on the point of view of the observer.
     Yet the fact remains that in entering into battle with the company-hired Pinkertons, the workers of Homestead did an amazing, unique feat: the defeat of a trained, armed militia by a motley assemblage of workers.  For that, the name Homestead will always have a special place in American history.
The fortified Homestead Works aka "Fort Frick."  In the weeks before the battle the company erected a fence around the entire mill site.  During the battle, the workers broke through the fence, but mended it the next day, naively assuming that they would soon be returning to work.

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