In 1892, the country’s largest trade union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, took on the world’s largest manufacturing firm, the Carnegie Steel Corporation. Carnegie’s plant manager Henry Clay Frick increased production demands, but refused to increase wages. Frick eventually locked workers out of the facility spurring a strike.
Only about a fifth of the workers at the Homestead Works Steel Mill were skilled workers represented by the union. But the nearly 3,000 workers agreed to strike for better wages and working conditions.
Carnegie had 300 Pinkerton security guards protect the mill while the workers, many armed with rifles, camped outside of the Homestead facility. According to the Battle of Homestead Foundation, seven workers were killed. Several sources say Pinkerton men were killed, but the number hasn’t been confirmed.
Charles McCollester, a volunteer with the Battle of Homestead Foundation and a retired University of Pennsylvania industrial and labor relations professor, said the workers fought to benefit from technological advancements Carnegie was using in the mill to speed up the process of steel making.
“Today, in our time, also our children and our children’s children face revolutionary changes driven by advanced technology,” he said. “We need to remember the Homestead Strike of 1892 and strive to guarantee that the fruits of progress are shared for the benefit of all and not for the extreme accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a few.”
At the Homestead Cemetery Thursday, just feet from the grave of the first of the seven steelworkers who died in the fight, a crowd sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Then the group walked the other graves, stopping to pay respect to each worker.
At Joseph Sotak’s grave, Rosemary Trump, a former SEIU organizer, said he died for worker’s rights.
“They want to take us back to 1892," she said. "We come her today to pledge on your grave that we will not go back.”
Lew Dopson, assistant director for the United Steelworkers District 10, said the union developed, “out of 150 years of struggle against wage cuts, unemployment, unsafe work and hard living conditions.”
“Workers were conscripted to fight against slavery in the Civil War, only to come home to industrial slavery,” he said. “We are constantly under attack by those in political and financial power, but we continue to organize all workers to resist all forms of slavery.”
The Battle of Homestead will also be remembered with six performances in September of Mark Clayton Southers play that relives the event.