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The Homestead Strike

Primary Source Set

In the summer of 1892, at the Homestead Steel Works in Homestead, Pennsylvania, a dispute between a labor union and the Carnegie Steel Company led to violent conflict. Henry Frick, Carnegie’s chief executive officer and a staunch opponent of unions, offered the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AAISW) a new contract with substantial pay reductions over an extended term. When the union refused the contract, attempted to negotiate, and then threatened to strike, Frick refused to back down. He constructed a fence around the steel mill at Homestead, shut down operations, and laid off hundreds of workers, leading to an official lockout by June 30. Workers became aware that Frick was recruiting scabs, or non-union workers, to replace them, and they overtook the mill several days after the lockout. To protect the scab workers and regain control of the property, Frick engaged the services of the Pinkerton Detective Agency—a private security agency notorious for violent conflicts with labor unions.

On July 6, 1892, Pinkerton agents arrived in Homestead on barges along the Monongahela River. Strikers resisted their advance and violence quickly escalated. To prevent the Pinkertons from entering the mill, strikers fired shots—killing one agent and wounding five others. The Pinkertons then opened fire on strikers, killing or wounding more than thirty men. Strikers retaliated by attacking the Pinkertons on their barges in a thirteen-hour battle. Finally, the union agreed to let Pinkerton agents surrender in exchange for their guaranteed safety, although once the Pinkertons came ashore, they were attacked by angry Homestead townspeople. Strikers then set the barges on fire.

By July 10, the sheriff of Homestead succeeded in getting the Pennsylvania governor to send an armed militia to Homestead to quell the violence. In the months that followed, the union continued the strike, but Frick successfully reopened the mill with scab workers. Union leaders faced legal charges for the violence of July 6, and by November, they were running out of money and supplies to keep the strike going. Most union workers never regained their jobs at Homestead and the Homestead works remained free of union organization—along with all of the Carnegie companies' steel mills. Although the Homestead Strike failed as a bargaining tactic for the union, it gained national attention for the cause of labor organizing, sparked public outrage with industry giants and their use of force, and set precedent in US labor history for decades to come. This primary source set uses illustrations, documents, and photographs to tell the story of the Homestead Strike.

Additional resources for research

  1. The Homestead Strike of 1892, Chronicling America, the Library of Congress.
  2. The Homestead Strike, American Experience, PBS.
  3. The Homestead Strike of 1892, The History Project, University of California Davis.

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