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"The River Ran Red": Homestead 1892.

This year marks the centennial of the Homestead Lockout in Pennsylvania. A violent event which rocked the nation, Homestead affected the course of American labour history for the next forty years. In his thoroughly researched study, Paul Krause presents a fresh analysis of the Homestead affair; David Demarest's work is a well selected compilation of newspaper stories, photographs, drawings, congressional hearings, and other primary sources related to Homestead.

Steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie, had never countenanced labour organizations in any of his plants. When he acquired Homestead, however, he also inherited one of the nation's best organized and powerful unions, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. Amalgamated had won a favourable contract in 1889 and hoped for a renewal in 1892. Henry Clay Frick, who now served as chief executive officer for Carnegie Steel wanted to break the union. He presented Amalgamated with a series of demands which he knew it could not accept. When negotiations collapsed, Frick announced that he would no longer deal with the union but only with individual workers. He then closed the plant and constructed a wall around its properties complete with searchlight towers, barbed wire, holes for sharp shooters, and water canons. Workers dubbed the edifice, "Fort Frick."

Frick then hired three hundred guards from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to secure company property and to protect any non-union labour which might be employed by the firm. Tugboats pulled two barges filled with "detectives" up the Monongahela River and pushed the vessels ashore on company property. A fierce gun battle of several hours duration then ensued between the Pinkertons on their barges and workers on the river bank. Both sides suffered injuries and fatalities. Promised safe conduct if they surrendered, the Pinkertons finally raised the white flag but as soon as they disembarked they were forced to run a gauntlet of angry workers plus their wives and families who mercilessly pummelled them. Several were beaten into insensibility and none escaped injury. Soon afterward the Governor of Pennsylvania dispatched the National Guard to Homestead and this action effectively destroyed the workers' cause. Troops enforced martial law and permitted "scab" labour to enter the factories which resumed production. Workers settled for a reduction in wages and a twelve-hour day. Steel remained a non-union bastion until the mid-1930s.

Both books place Homestead within a broad historical context. The last quarter of the nineteenth century, Demarest observes, was rife with confrontation between an emerging labour movement and a new corporate culture. Social conflict of a most violent nature had erupted across America punctuated by the 1877 wildcat railroad strikes, the Haymarket Riot of 1886, and the Coeur d'Alene miners' strike in Idaho in 1892. Politically this discontent found expression in formation of the Greenback Labor Party, the Workingman's Party, and the Populist rebellion. Homestead, in Demarest's view, ranked as a battle between corporate feudalism and American ideals of participatory democracy. In this same vein, Krause contends that it represented a clash betmeen the right of individuals to accumulate unlimited wealth and privilege versus the right of individuals to enjoy economic security and dignity in their homes.

In the background stood the enigmatic figure of Andrew Carnegie. While he still owned 55 per cent of Carnegie Steel's capital he had removed himself from its day-to-day operations and was residing in Scotland during the Homestead altercation. In public statements Carnegie had given every indication that he sympathized with the right of labour to form unions. "To expect that one dependent upon his daily wage for the necessaries of life," Carnegie had written, "will stand by peaceably and see a new man employed in his stead is to expect much." "Thou shalt not take thy neighbor's job," he asserted, is an unwritten law among workingmen (p. 3 Demarest). Yet Carnegie, as Krause demonstrates, fought unionism everywhere and had given Fisk his total support in the Homestead crisis. Carnegie's biographer, Joseph Frazier Wall, in an article in Demarest's book, argues that there were two Andrew Carnegies. The first was a child of Scottish Chartism who had even purchased a string of newspapers in England to press for egalitarianism and republicanism, and who had reaffirmed his convictions in his widely read book, Triumphant Democracy. A second was the hard-headed, aggressive businessman concerned about costs who sought ever higher profits to reinvest in his enterprises. Holding two contradictory ideas in his mind at the same time, Carnegie could never quite come to terms with Homestead. As years passed he placed the blame more and more on Frick and created his own version of the event which bore no relation to reality.

Krause views the late nineteenth century and particularly Homestead as "one last grand opportunity to rechart the course of the Republic and create a cooperative social order" (p. 284). Pre-1892 Homestead, in his eyes, stood as a model workers' republic with labourers in control of their own economic and political destiny and where diverse ethnic groups lived in cultural harmony. Yet there is little evidence that Homestead's workers consciously strove to reconstruct society. As the Amalgamated's constitution declared, the workers' overriding concern was for "a fair day's wages for a fair day's work" (p. 63 Demarest). Demands for better pay, decent conditions, and shorter hours do not constitute a call for a new social-economic commonwealth. With some exceptions, the American labourer has generally worked within the system to obtain a larger share of the capitalistic pie. Homestead's workers, even at a time of considerable turmoil, fought for food on the table not for the birth of a new utopia.

Demarest's excellent selection of primary material brings Homestead graphically to life. Krause's study will undoubtedly serve as the definitive work on Homestead for several decades. Both books make an important contribution to American labour history.
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Author:Adams, Graham, Jr.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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