The Homestead and Pullman Strikes

by Spence Holman, Vassar '99

In light of the recent depression, the voters of 1896 were concerned with keeping money in their pockets. Bimetallism was touted as the solution as well as the cause of the nation's economic difficulties. William Jennings Bryan spoke to this in his famous speech, asking that "you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns."

The voice of the worker was strong, and each party was interested in gaining its favor. At the same time, there was fear of unrest. Within recent public memory lay two major events that led to this unease--the Homestead strike of 1892 and the Pullman Railroad strike of 1894. These two conflicts brought to the surface the deeper issues at work in an age of industrial progress.

In a song about Homestead entitled "A Man Named Carnegie," workers at the Pennsylvania plant are referred to as chattel and slaves. At Pullman, a worker reportedly told the Chicago Herald that "the only difference between slavery at Pullman and what it was down South before the war is that there the owners took care of their slaves when they were sick and here they don't." The feeling among workers was that slavery had not ended, but had just changed. Workers labored for long hours under poor conditions, and were subject to the whims of their employers.

Image of the town of Pullman from Richard Ely's "Pullman: A Social Study," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, February 1885

At the Pullman factory, employees lived in the company town, much like slaves lived on the plantations where they worked. Pullman residents lived in constant fear of their employer, worried that if they voiced any disparaging opinions about the town (an example of a modern utopia, according to many newspapers of the day), they would be reprimanded or, even worse, fired. Anonymity was the best escape. The less seen and less heard one was, the less likely one was to get in trouble.

An Iron Puddler

Workers were dehumanized by the emerging corporate complexes. The Pullman town, which was meant to solve the labor problem, ended up exacerbating existing tensions. Residents felt that the company had taken over every aspect of their life, and had taken their identity in the process. Unions gave a voice to those without, and strikes became a way to assert an identity. Individuality was equated with wealth. Thus, when wages were cut, employees felt as if they were being de-emphasized even further.

The employers, of course, did not take the same stance. George Pullman felt that he was improving the lives of his workers by providing them with housing, shopping, and entertainment next to their workplace. Carnegie provided money for civic buildings such as libraries as he cut wages. It was a bread-and-circus approach to a more complex problem. Food and entertainment wasn't the only thing workers wanted or needed; they were searching for an identity beyond that of an hourly wage earner. The strikers not only wanted more money for their homes and families, they desired independence.

Homestead 1892

Carnegie Steel Works during the 'Battle of Homestead,' July 1892, from the Rivers of Steel Heritage Area, Pittsburgh

"About the only difference between slavery at Pullman and what it was down South before the war, is that there the owners took care of the slaves when they were sick and here they don't."
-- worker to a reporter for the Chicago Herald, 31 May 1890

"[Pullman] is, in fact, philanthropy made practical; humanity, founded on business principles; sobriety, art music, clean living, refined homes, self-respecting independence of character without paternalism; a vindication of the theory that there is an economical value in beauty, and that the workingman is capable of appreciating and wisely using the highest ministries of art and beauty."
--Chicago Times, 10 January 1891

Sing ho, for we know you, Carnegie;
God help us and save us, we know you too well;
You're crushing our wives and you're starving our babies;
In our homes you have driven the shadow of hell.
Then bow, bow down to Carnegie,
Ye men who are slaves to his veriest whim;
If he lowers your wages cheer, vassals, then cheer. Ye
Are nothing but chattels and slaves under him.
- 2nd verse, "A Man Named Carnegie," anonymous, California, 7 July 1892

--Frederic Remington, sketch of the Homestead strike, from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, 14 July 1892. Remington depicted strikers as dangerous rioters, opposing the forces of order and good government.

"At 12 o'clock last night every department of the immense Carnegie steel works at Homestead was shut down, throwing about 3,800 men out of employment...It has been the custom of the Carnegies, and all other mills, to discharge their men on the night of the expiration of the yearly contract. The men had declared positively that they would strike at the date of the expiration of the yearly contract. This term of expiration was to occur either at 6 o'clock this morning, or at 6 o'clock this evening, just as the authorities decided. At midnight, the firm cleverly forestalled the men, and flatly declared a shut-down. Instead of being a strike then at the great steel works, the action of the firm has made it a lock-out."
-- The Pittsburgh Post, 30 June 1892

"Governor Pattison, being convinced that Sheriff McCleary is unable to restore order at Homestead, has ordered out the entire National Guard -8,500 men-all the available military force of the state, to Homestead for service. It is understood that the Governor's purpose in calling out the entire National Guard is to make sure that there will be no demonstration on the part of the locked-out men. He thinks that men will quietly submit before such an overwhelming force, while they might resist if one regiment was sent there."
--New York Herald, 11 July 1892


Demarest, David P., ed. "The River Ran Red": Homestead 1892. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.

Montgomery, David. The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Smith, Carl. Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Andrew Carnegie

Head of the Carnegie Steel Works, Andrew Carnegie was called the 'Richest Man in the World.' Born to a poor family in Scotland, Carnegie emigrated to the U.S., working in a textile mill and a telegraph office before moving up through the ranks at the Pennsylvania Railroad. Carnegie built his steel empire through vertical integration--owning and controlling all parts of the steel production process, from coal mines all the way to sale of the final product. 'Watch the bottom line' was one of his business rules, and he kept a firm hand on the costs not only of raw materials, but of labor. He did allow unionization, but during the Homestead strike of 1892, Carnegie and his second-in-command, Henry Frick, hired a private army to put down a strike by the Amalgamated Iron, Steel and Tin Workers (the largest union within the American Federation of Labor), which pressed for higher wages and an eight-hour day. Many Americans who were anti-union nonetheless condemned Carnegie for taking matters into his own hands, rather than seeking government aid in resolving the crisis.

Though ruthless in keeping wages down, Carnegie viewed himself as a fair man and stressed 'honesty, truthfulness, and fair-dealing' in business relations. In his famous essay 'The Gospel of Wealth' (1900), he condemned millionaires who kept their money, arguing that private wealth should be treated as a public trust. Carnegie urged that the federal and state governments levy extremely high inheritance taxes to prevent the growth of 'family empires.' He gave millions to endow libraries around the country, as well as Carnegie-Mellon University and other educational institutions. Critics observed that he did not show the same charity to his workforce. Carnegie responded--according to the widely held theory of 'social darwinism'--that direct charitable 'handouts' would interfere with humans' competition for survival and impede the progress of the race.

In 1901 Carnegie sold his operations to J. P. Morgan for $480 million, making a personal profit of $225 million. Carnegie's mills, which by that time produced one-third of America's steel output and more steel than all of England, became part of Morgan's United States Steel, popularly known as the 'steel trust.'


© 2000, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College