July 6, 1892 -- The Homestead Strike, one of the greatest labor strikes in American history, culminates with a pitched gun battle between striking steelworkers at the Homestead Works in Homestead, Pa. (a suburb of Pittsburgh).
The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (the AA) was an American labor union formed in 1876 which represented skilled iron and steel workers. Workers at the Homestead Works organized a union under the AA's auspicies in 1882. Determined to break the union, steel mill owner Andrew Carnegie placed the brutal Henry Clay Frick in charge of the Homestead plant. With the collective bargaining agreement due to expire on June 30, 1892, Frick demanded a 22 percent wage cut, and then locked out the workers on June 28. Frick swiftly built sniper towers along the plant walls, and installed cannons capable of spewing boiling-hot water at key points near the gates.
The union announced an immediate strike in response, and more than 5,000 picketers ringed the plant and refused to allow supervisors or strikebreakers access to it.
Frick had planned for this. A month earlier, he had contracted for 300 armed Pinkerton Detective Agency thugs to be imported to Pittsburgh. Now he armed each one with a shotgun, loaded them on barges, and tried to have them land on the plant's unprotected riverbank at 2:30 AM. No one knows who shot first, but within 10 minutes there were 12 dead (three of them Pinkertons) and and twice as many wounded.
During the rest of the night, the strikers huddled behind the pig and scrap iron in the mill yard, and built a rampart out of finished steel which they used for protection while firing down at the barges. The Pinkertons cut holes in the side of the barges so they could fire on any who approached. Hundreds of women crowded on the riverbank between the strikers and the "detectives", calling on the strikers to "kill the Pinkertons!" More than 5,000 local townspeople congregated on the hills overlooking the steelworks.
The Pinkertons attempted to disembark again at 8:00 AM. A firefight again broke out, and four strikers were killed. Many of the Pinkerton agents refused to participate in the firefight any longer and crowded onto the barge farthest from shore. More than 300 striking riflemen positioned themselves on the high ground and kept a steady stream of fire on the barges.
In the afternoon, the strikers attempted to burn the barges by loading a raft with oil-soaked timber and floating it toward the barges. But the fire burned itself out before it reached the barges. The strikers then loaded a railroad flatcar with drums of oil, set it afire, and rolled it down the rails toward the mill wharf where the barges were docked. But the car stopped at the water's edge and burned itself out. Dynamite was thrown at the barges, but it only hit the mark once and caused little damage. The workers even poured oil onto the river, hoping the oil slick would burn the barges, but attempts to light the slick failed.
At 5:00 PM, the Pinkertons surrendered. They were taken to the Homestead opera house, running a gauntlet of jeering people who hurled rocks and bottles at them, beat them, and spat on them. The press -- once sympathetic to the strikers -- was horrified by the attacks, and started condemning the strike. A special train whisked the Pinkerton agents out of the city at 10:00 AM on July 7.
Behind the scenes, the AA was desperately trying to convince Governor Robert E. Pattison that law and order had been restored. Pattison, who had been elected with the backing of the Carnegie-supported political machine, called out the state militia to break the strike.
The militia arrived secretly at Homestead on July 12, six days after the violence had ended. More than 4,000 soldiers surrounded the plant, arresting all strikers they could find. Another 2,000 troops camped on the high ground overlooking the city. On July 18, the town was placed under martial law, even though no additional violence had occurred and the strike had been broken for a week.
Support for the strikers evaporated. The state militia stayed in Homestead until October 13, a 95-day occupation. The Homestead chapter of the AA voted to return to work on November 20, 1892. But no union members were ever rehired.
The Homestead strike broke the AA as a force in the American labor movement. Organizing drives at the Homestead plant in 1896 and again in 1899 were borth crushed by Frick. Emboldened by Frick's actions, other steel plants also broke their unions. By 1900, not a single steel plant in Pennsylvania remained unionized.
The AA maintained a rump membership of a few hundred workers, scattered in plants nationwide, until its takeover by the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in 1936.
In 1999, the Bost Building -- the AA's headquarters throughout the strike -- was designated a National Historic Landmark. It is used as a museum devoted to not only the strike but the steel industry in the Pittsburgh area. A railroad bridge over the Monongahela near the site of the battle is named Pinkerton's Landing Bridge in honor of the dead.
The site where the Pinkertons attempted to land is both a Pittsburgh Historic Landmark and a Pennsylvania State Landmark. The cemeteries of St. Mary's and Homestead (where the remains of six of the seven dead workers are buried) are also both Pennsylvania State Landmarks.