The Causes and Effects of the Homestead Strike

The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AA) was on the rise in the recent years before July of 1892. Its membership nearly doubled since its last victory at Homestead in 1889, after which steel output was limited by the collective bargaining agreement. As one of the largest and most powerful labor unions of the late 19th century, the AA wielded significant political power among steel plants. However, when the union contract was due to expire June 30, 1892, Henry Clay Frick (who was placed in charge of Carnegie’s steel company in 1881) refused to recognize the union and renew its charter. As a result, Frick locked out union workers and fortified Homestead while refusing AA demands of higher wages and better working conditions.

Frick believed that Homestead was not running at its maximum efficiency because of the union, and so he desired to break the union. After the battle with the Pinkertons and the strike, union workers finally surrendered to Frick, and the union was completely purged from Carnegie steel. The assassination attempt of Frick also vilified the union, undermining its social standing. The AA was entirely broken, never returning to its pre-Homestead power and status. The breaking of the union had wider ramifications; other steel worker employers were less likely to negotiate with labor unions and would rather shut them down. Carnegie Steel continually sought wage decreases, and working conditions did not become more safe, if not more unsafe than pre-Homestead conditions. In general, after the events at Homestead, labor unions in the steel industry were collapsing, revolutionizing the industrial workplace.

Before the Homestead Strike, labor unions could negotiate for better wages and working conditions. Workers and managers were on a more equal basis in that workers could collectively control some aspects of their jobs. Still, there was much contention between the workers and the managers over who should run the jobs. The workers believed they had a right to their jobs, and as a result it was their right to determine their wages (most earned less than $2.5 a day), working hours, and other factors that influence the workers’ jobs; the managers and Carnegie contrarily believed that it was up to the business owner to determine the value of these factors.

To Carnegie, workers were disposable, and steel output was the priority, so he hired Frick to dissolve the union. Publicly, Carnegie was a sympathizer with labor unions, but he was counting on Frick to break the union. This two-facedness leads to higher moral questions of how big businesses should be managed. Homestead became the battleground for the future of the labor unions. After the defeat of the labor unions, Frick dismantled the union and established wages, working hours, and work rules, setting a precedent for future businesses on how an industrial business handles its workers and labor unions. The events at Homestead made it clear that managers and workers were parts of different economic roles and classes and that the working conditions were decided by the employer, not the employee.

Many Americans are divided on the question of mob law (an ochlocracy) and whether or not it should be an acceptable form of government. Before Homestead, public opinion was mostly in favor of the strikers; after all, the union workers had families to feed and a dangerous job at which they earned less than $2.5 a day. However, after the attempted assassination of Frick, everyone began to support Frick and the anti-unionist standpoint. The strikers’ occupation of Homestead was also considered an instance of mob rule. The Homestead Strike exposes how a group of people (workers) can be denied what they consider a fundamental right as workers by the executive body. Also, it exposes the bandwagon appeal of news distribution; we generally consider the news to be true, especially if the news is very shocking and somewhat logically related to past events.

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