The Homestead strike is ranked as one of the most famous strikes in the history of the United States. The labor dispute was witnessed in the year 1892. The strike involved workers who were members of the steel workers’ union and management of the Carnegie Steel Company. This company was situated at Homestead, Pannsylavania. Essentially, the strike was provoked by a proposal to reduce wages of employees following the harsh economic times that were being experienced in the United States (Whitelaw, 2006). This paper shall give an analysis of the Homestead strike that was witnessed in the United States towards the end of the 19th century.
Labor movement during the 19th century
During the formative years of the 19th century, labor unions were active in their quest to enhance the working conditions. This period witnessed increased negotiations between the labor unions and management of different companies. There were also strikes among the disgraced workers. Notably, by the 1820s, labor unions called for the reduction of working hours. This was an indication of unity among the unions in their efforts to improve the working conditions. Labor unions joined forces in their call for the protection of workers. The adoption of the factory system in the United States during the 1830s led to an increase in production from the Americans. This led to the accumulation of wealth among the few individuals whereas poverty became widespread (Beik, 2005).
The working class discovered that their employers were very strong, and this facilitated the growth of the unions in the mid 19th century. During the year 1866, the National Labor Union was formed. This was one of the notable unions of the time. This labor union influenced the Congress to pass a regulation requiring Federal employees to work for only 8 hours per day. This labor organization was not strong enough, and it collapsed during the economic crunch in 1873 (Beik, 2005).
Apart from the National Labor Union, there were other unions that were formed during the 19th century. This included the Knights of Labor (KOL), which was formed in 1869. This labor union experienced rapid growth during the reign of Terrance Powdery. The membership of the Knights of Labor membership organization was open to workers across the board. This means that membership disregarded race, gender and other aspects such as skills. The labor union was growing rapidly before a split emerged between the skilled and unskilled employees. The KOL organization was an effective union until the event that followed the Haymarket Square riots. During this riot, members of the labor union were alleged to have thrown a bomb that led to the demise of police officers. This led to negative publicity that culminated into the disintegration of the union (Beik, 2005).
In 1896, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) formed. The founders were determined to create an effective union to fight for the workers’ welfare. Essentially, the AFL was a coalition of unions of skilled workers in the United States. Therefore, it can be noted that labor unions were active during the 19th century. This period witnessed numerous strikes. However, the use of force by the government to subdue the strikes was quite common. The use of force by the government authorities to quell the strike led to the development of a negative attitude towards unions (Beik, 2005).
The labor movements were associated with violence and anger. The workers found themselves in limbo. They did not want violence, whereas they favored the calls for an improved working environment fronted by the unions. This was reflected during the Pullman Strike of 1894. The people were not supportive of the strike given the violence that was associated with it. The strike was prompted by the move by George Pullman to reduce the wages of his employees. The government responded by unleashing violence on the union members to coerce them into ending the strike (Beik, 2005).
The reasons for the Strike
During the late 19th century, America was experiencing some economic upheavals that affected many industries. This led to the stumbling of the economy, and there was increased conflict between labor unions and management of various companies. Given the tough economic environment, there was no guarantee that the Carnegie Steel Company would enjoy smooth relations with the workers. In the early 1890s, the steel industry experienced a sharp decline in the prices. The wages of those working in the steel industry were determined by the price of steel. This means that, with the tough economic times, the wages were likely to drop. In this case, the general manager of the Carnegie Steel Company decided to implement a wage cut, as well as break the labor union that represented the steel workers (New content, 1999). It can be noted that the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers boasted of being a robust labor union in the United States. The general manager, with the help of the owner of the company, was in agreement about disregarding the workers’ union. They issued terms to be followed by the union, and it did not matter to them whether the union accepted the conditions or not. With respect to social justice, this was unfair since the workers were not given a choice. In fact, they were issued with conditions that did not incorporate their views. They were expected to accept the terms and conditions without question (Whitelaw, 2006).
What triggered the strike
The move to cut the wages is what started the strike. This led to the closure of some of the steel mills with over 1000 workers being forced to leave work (New content, 1999). The general manager, Mr. Henry C. Frick, refused to negotiate with the union over the issue. He opted to deal with the workers at the individual level. This angered the workers union who were not ready to accept any efforts to dissolve their union (Wolff, 1965). Therefore, it can be noted that the wage cut implemented by the general manager and an attempt to dissolve the workers union was the straw that broke the camel’s back. This is what led people into the streets in protest of the treatment they were getting from the management of the company (Whitelaw, 2006).
The organization of the workers
The assumption that the workers would leave the union in order to keep their jobs was misplaced. The workers voted tremendously in support of the strike. This was despite the fact that a paltry 750 out of 3800 workers were registered members of the union (New content, 1999). This gave an indication that the workers were not pleased with the way the management was treating them and they were ready to unite and fight back. Frick had instructed the fencing of the company premises, and he also employed deputy sheriffs to keep vigil. The workers came together to order the deputy sheriffs out. The guards could not ignore this, and they were forced to leave the company premises. The workers took over and guarded the company premises, which they believed to be stakeholders. The workers believed that they had a stake in the company since they had been employed to work in the company (Brecher, 1997). The organizational abilities of the workers were amazing. This was tested when they were able to defeat the Pinkerton Agency’s private army. The Pinkertons were used by industrialists to maintain calm and order among the striking workers. At midnight on 5th July 1892, the Pinkertons who were armed arrived to chase the striking workers from the company premises. The workers were informed of the impending attack, and they woke up in readiness for the attack (Reef, 2007). The workers warned the Pinkertons not to dare step off their barge, but they never heeded. This provoked a heated fire exchange that saw the Pinkertons retreat. The conflict did last for about 14 hours before the Pinkertons surrendered. At the end of the conflict, three Pinkertons and 9 workers had succumbed to injuries (New content, 1999).
The growth of the movement
What started as a small group grew into a huge movement. In the first place, there were only 750 who belonged to the union. This number was negligible when one considers that the company had close to 4000 workers (New content, 1999). The strike can be said to have been part of the labor movement experienced during the late 19th century America. During this period, many workers in other parts of the country were fighting against the long working hours and wage cuts. The steel workers who were unionized were buoyed by the strength of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers union. This was regarded as one of the strongest labor unions in the country. Despite the fact that only few workers were members of this union, the union managed to bring the non-unionized members on board to reject the wage cuts. With the support of the majority, the workers were daring to call for the strike thereby paralyzing the operations of the company. The Homestead Strike is regarded as one of the most violent in the US history. However, its contribution to the growth of the labor movement was devastating especially for workers in the steel industry. In this case, the unions in the steel industry were disbanded as companies were not ready to employ unionized workers (Goldberge, 2004).
The tactics used
The workers’ strength lay in their numbers. They were able to paralyze the operations of the company leading to its closure. They were able to overwhelm the private armies who were hired to get them out of the company (Whitelaw, 2006). Furthermore, they intimidated the deputy sheriffs who were forced to leave the company premise, which they had been hired to guard. In addition, the workers were involved in armed conflict with the authorities. In the first conflict, they defeated the private armies. However, they succumbed to the state militia who were able to push them out of the company premises (Reef, 2007).
The change that happened
The Homestead Strike led to significant changes in the labor relations. It can be noted that, after the strike, all steel companies used it as an excuse to de-unionize workers in the steel companies. For instance, in Allegheny County, most of the steel and iron companies refused to employ unionized staff. In Illinois, the workers in the steel industry were de-unionized by the early 20th century. Without the union, the conditions and wages in the steel industry worsened. They were paid poorly and worked for long hours. It is estimated that steelworkers worked for between 60 and 72 hours in a week (Goldberge, 2004).
Setbacks and Challenges
In their fight against the company, the workers faced many challenges. The management was very tough towards them and could not listen to their grievances. They opted to reduce their wages without consultations and dismantle their union. The management also opted for the use of force in making the workers oblige to their demands. However, the workers relied on their solidarity to overcome these challenges. They came together to defend their rights even when it was against all odds (Brecher, 1997).
The experience of the workers during the Homestead strike was appalling. Nonetheless, there are notable lessons that can be learnt from this incident. First of all, the workers of the steel company depicted the importance of the employees in any organization. Their coming together to champion for their rights is plausible. Although not all of them were union members, they were all united in the strike. The management of the company resorted to the use of violence through the use of state machinery. This was met by equal measure as depicted by the violence that involved the Pinkertons and the workers. However, the workers were subdued when the governor unleashed the state militia with advanced weapons. This was a devastating blow to the union movement in the US. The union officials were charged and blackmailed. The workers were left without any other choice, but to return to work. The wages offered were low, and the working conditions were not improved. Therefore, it can be noted that the strike was successful in grounding the operation of the Carnegie Company. However, the strike was not a success in achieving the goals of the labor movement as it was crushed with the help of the state militia.
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