The River Ran Red: Homestead 1892.
The River Ran Red: Homestead 1892. David Demarest, general editor. Pittsburgh, PA, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992. 232 pp. $39.95, cloth; $19.95, paper.
These two books chronicle transformations in an industry whose product changed economic, social, and political policy on a global scale. But in the process, high technology machinery replaced workers, which critics argue was a deliberate scheme to wipe out the skills of unionized craftsmen, altering the societal fabric of many "smokestack" communities that depended on the industry. Finally, a major employer locked out workers from a jobsite, precipitating a violent dispute.
This scenario may fit neatly into the turbulent sweep of current labor relations lore, but the event flashes back to the dawn of American industrial capitalism: The great Homestead Steel Strike of 1892.
The Battle for Homestead, 1880-1892: Politics Culture and Steel by Paul Krause is the more scholarly and extensive work of two recently published books about the Homestead Strike. The author contends that this book departs from traditional analyses of the much studied 1892 dispute. His thesis focuses on participation of the common folk-- steelworkers, their wives, local politicians, and small entrepreneurs rather than resembling standard works featuring the titanic struggle between industrialists Andrew Carnegie and his lieutenant Henry Clay Frick and the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. But this approach, which historians draw from the model of historiography known as the "new labor history," is far from unique. In fact, most recently published labor history publications carry subheadings with "work, culture, society, and politics" in the title. Krause acknowledges the influences of Herbert Guttman's seminal book, Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America (1977). Regardless, Krause's analysis of the working lives of the men and women in the greater Pittsburgh area at the turn of the century is refreshing and interesting.
In today's era of rapid economic and technological change, the events of a similar past period warrant close examination. The Homestead works of the Carnegie empire were the high-tech paragons of late 19th century America. The shift from labor intensive to machine controlled work processes with fewer employees produced considerable cost savings for the company. Andrew Carnegie, imbued with nascent notions of scientific management, wanted labor cost reductions in proportion to other cost efficient measures.
When the union refused to accept bargaining concessions, Frick launched efforts to eliminate the union, first with a lockout in 1892 by importing strike breakers. To block the strike replacements, workers, in an orderly manner, insulated the mills and community from outside access. Laboring class support from other "Mon Valley" steel towns heightened tensions. Frick arranged for Pinkerton detectives to travel the Monongahela River in barges in the early hours of July 6 to repossess company property. The ensuing battle left seven strikers and three Pinkertons dead.
A failed assassination attempt on Frick's life by anarchist Alexander Berkman, who did not play an official role in the struggle, ignited Pennsylvania officials, who were influenced heavily by leaders of the steel trust, into using the State militia to restore peace. The strike and union broken, steelworkers waited for nearly half a century before the Congress of Industrial Organizations brought equitable living and working standards to the area.
Considerable debate among scholars of the industrial process has focused on how capital has encouraged technology development to "deskill" workers, control the production process, and shatter representational trade unionism---a distinct distortion of the republican concepts of our democracy. Eric Hobsbawm, Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (1965), David Noble, Forces of Production (1984), and Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974), among others, have put forward this theory. Krause offers additional support for the proposition, arguing that steel and other metallurgical industry research, development of the Bessemer furnaces, for example, and the search for alternative fuels were tied directly to assaults on trade unionism and other worker standards of representational democracy. Not all scholars support this theory, but it is a major force in current historiography.
The ethnic mix of the work force and community also plays an important part in The Battle for Homestead. The bonds of ethnic and racial solidarity have often been a factor in union formation. The author elaborates on how Slovak, Polish, and Hungarian members of the Homestead community, often identified as "Slavs" and regarded as the vilest members of society by native white residents, molded into the working class mainstream while maintaining their ethnic identities. Although this also is not a revelation--other writers have recognized this aspect of labor research recently, such as John Bodnar (Immigration and Industrialization: Ethnicity in an American Mill Town, 1977)--Krause adds to the body of knowledge.
In regard to the ethnic composition of Pittsburgh's steel industry, and other aspects of the book, the author tends to overstate. He often discounts the hypotheses of other historians by claiming a host of new discoveries; thus, Henry Bessemer was the first to highlight "scientific management," or a parade in 1880 was the first "Labor Day celebration," and other authors have misunderstood ethnic diversities between Slavic immigrant groups---lumping together non-Slavic and Slavic immigrants with workers from other eastern European nations. But these are minor flaws, appearing to result from an overabundance of enthusiasm and passion for the subject.
This is an excellent work. A 10-year effort, published for the Homestead Strike centennial, Paul Krause's book links the past with the present. While historical events do not repeat themselves, contrary to popular myth, the lessons and experiences of the past can add to the understanding of current problems. As the American industrial system moves rapidly from conflict and confrontation toward cooperation and employee empowerment, and as the workplace changes under a blitzkrieg of sociotechnical innovations, students of industry and economics can benefit greatly from a strong dose of history.
A companion piece to Krause' s work is The River Ran Red: Homestead 1892. Edited by David P. Demarest, it is a compilation of news articles and popular accounts of the strike that also commemorates the centennial of the labor struggle. Unlike Krause's work, which is geared more for the student of labor history or practitioner of industrial relations, this brief book fits more as an educational curriculum guide; it includes an accompanying manual to aid teachers, prepared by the Steel Heritage Industry Task Force. Filled with illustrations, political cartoons, and photographs of the labor struggle and its participants, this easy to read publication should fill the void of labor history in many survey courses at the secondary school and college level.
As workplace issues portend to dominate much attention in the 21st century, it is important to look back at this strike. Replacement worker legislation, technological displacement and restructuring problems, worker empowerment programs, union avoidance policies, and similar concepts are as relevant today as when the Nation approached the 20th century.
Homestead 1880-1892 and The River Ran Red trace parallel issues to that earlier period and do it quite well. These works will help readers understand the past, present, and future of labor relations from a different point of view.