The Pump House: 1892 Battle of Homestead
The July 6, 1892 battle between the union workers of Carnegie Steel and Pinkerton guards at the Homestead mill was a watershed in American labor relations. While the battle ended with the Pinkertons’ surrender, the union’s ultimate defeat retarded union organization of mass production industry for 45 years. The battle helped establish “employment at will” as the basic operating principle of American labor relations. Homestead workers operating the massive steel complex felt that they had a certain ownership right to their job, a role in bargaining the price of their labor, as well as the power to participate in decisions in the workplace that affected their lives.
The Pump House, the only building standing from the original steel works, was at the center of the 1892 shootout. Henry Clay Frick attempted to land 300 armed men to secure the mill a week into the lockout/strike. Following the surrender of the Pinkertons to community and union forces, the members of the invading army passed through a gauntlet of angry women and youths before being put on a train out of town. The assassination attempt by anarchist Alexander Berkman on Frick helped swing public opinion against the workers. Following the union’s defeat, the Carnegie mills cut wages and imposed the twelve-hour day, seven-day work week and the swing shift on the majority of its workers. The Battle of Homestead Foundation presents labor education programs at the Pump House from spring to fall each year.
Bost Building: Amalgamated Association strike headquarters
The Bost Building, headquarters and visitor center of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, has an interesting story to tell. Completed shortly before the violent 1892 events at Homestead, its top floor was rented by the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers so the union could observe activities beyond the high wooden fence topped with barbed wire that H.C. Frick ordered built around the mill. In their offices, the union leadership burned the union charter and membership cards in front of the sheriff of Allegheny County on the eve of the battle. They disavowed organizational responsibility for the consequences that might ensue if Frick introduced armed men into Homestead with the purpose of taking away their employment.
The Bost Building also served as a temporary telegraph station for the large numbers of American and foreign press gathered in anticipation of an epic struggle between the powerful Carnegie Steel corporation and the nation’s strongest union. Backlash from the crushing of the union helped Democratic presidential candidate, Cleveland, defeat the incumbent Republican, Harrison. After the strike was broken, the property became a hotel, then a brothel, finally an eatery before preservationists and the union building trades rescued it from total collapse.
The Rivers of Steel group operates a gift shop, bookstore on its ground floor, offices and archives, with a changing display on industrial and union history on the third floor.
Homestead and St. Mary Magdalene Cemeteries
At the 1992 centennial, the Pennsylvania Labor History Society marked the graves of five Homestead workers who were casualties of the July 6, 1892 battle. George Rutter, oldest of the strike victims and Civil War veteran wounded at Gettysburg, was buried in Tarentum. Overlooking Homestead, two cemeteries hold the remains of six strikers. John E. Morris, a skilled worker of English/Welsh descent with a marked grave, was the first killed, struck in the forehead as he looked out a Pump House window. Also in Homestead Cemetery, an Englishman Silas Wain died from shrapnel in the neck. Joseph Sotak, a Slovak leader of the Eastern European steel workers, was shot while attempting to rescue a wounded worker.
Across the road, St. Mary Magdalene Cemetery provided burial for three more strikers. Peter Ferris, a Slovak/Hungarian carrying a loaf of bread, was shot by a Pinkerton sharpshooter. Dying, he raised the bread and said: “You cannot take this from our mouths.” Joseph Streagel, the youngest of the strikers killed, apparently wounded himself in the neck with his revolver. Thomas Weldon, an Irishman born in England, died from a captured Winchester rifle discharged by accident. At his burial, Father Bullion asserted a worker’s right to his job: “A workman has a certain right…as long as he does nothing wrong, he has the right to expect permanent employment…it is wrong for a mob to come here and deprive the workman of the right that is his.”
Carrie Furnaces 1907
The only non-operative blast furnaces to be preserved following the decline of Mon Valley steelmaking in the 1980s, this site in Rankin is progressing surely into becoming an important interpretive center for steel industry history. Built in 1907, these furnaces combined iron ore, coke and limestone to produce iron that was then transported across the Monongahela on a “hot metal bridge” to be used in the massive open hearth furnaces of the Homestead Works. Until the 1950s, these furnaces produced up to 1250 tons of iron a day. Open hearth technology permitted the creation of very large heats of steel adjusted to an exact character and strength by the addition of alloys. Homestead specialized in armor plate that made the United States a dominant sea power, and structural steel beams that helped launch the age of the skyscraper, fundamentally changing the character of cities worldwide.
The Steel Industry Heritage Corporation through its Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area has ambitious plans to make the site a major cultural and historic destination. A new ramp off the Rankin Bridge will soon provide access to the furnaces and other planned developments on the site. During the many years when the site was abandoned, a group of local artists scavenged materials to construct a deer’s head of steel rods and miles of wire that rises 40 feet out of the structure. The sculpture is being stabilized and preserved.
Jailing of Mother Jones 1919
Mary Harris Jones is perhaps the best-known hero of the American working class. Ferocious opponent of child labor, brilliant stump orator, she was the “miners’ angel” bringing aid when union miners were in a fight or mourning those killed or dismembered in an explosion or cave-in. In her eighties she played an important role in the Great Steel Strike of 1919. The Mon Valley was an armed camp in that summer and fall. Meetings and street gatherings were forbidden. Mother Jones was arrested in Duquesne trying to hold a meeting. The mayor asserted that Jesus Christ could not hold a meeting for the union in his town. Mother Jones replied: “I have no doubt of that while you are mayor. You may remember, however, that He drove such men as you out of the temple.”
On August 20, Mother Jones came to Homestead and addressed a crowd of several thousand from an open car at 8th Avenue and McClure. She told how workers had been slaughtered in Europe to make the world “safe for democracy,” but were then denied its blessings in Pennsylvania. She was arrested and jailed in the Borough Building, but counseled the crowd to refrain from violence. At her trial, she was charged with speaking in the street without a permit. According to her famous autobiography, she told the old judge: “I had a permit.” “Who issued it?” he growled. “Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams! Said I.”
Francis Perkins comes to Homestead (1933)
In July 1933, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet officer in United States history, came to Homestead to urge political support for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act. The law was the keystone of a flood of new legislation passed in the first one hundred days of the New Deal. It provided for industrial codes that would regulate minimum wages, hours of work, and asserted the right of workers “to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing…free from the interference, restraint or coercion of employers of labor or their agents.” Perkins received a cold reception from the all-Republican borough council and expressed a desire to speak to the large crowd of workers gathered outside.
Leaving the very building where Mother Jones had been jailed for speaking on the streets of Homestead, the mayor, John Cavanaugh, informed Secretary Perkins that he would not give her permission to speak to people he considered “undesirable reds.” Seeing the American flag flying over the Post Office across the intersection, she said she would “go to the flag” and address the crowd. Hundreds crowded into the building where “Madame Secretary” stood on a chair, gave a speech, and took comments from the workers.
In 2006, the Pennsylvania Labor History Society proclaimed 9th and Amity Streets “Free Speech Corner” and dedicated two state historical markers to Mother Jones and Frances Perkins.
SWOC Monument in Homestead (1942)
Erected on the eve of the formal transformation of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee to the United Steelworkers of America by the Homestead local union, this elegant granite slab expresses the independent spirit and pride in the struggle for union rights represented by the Homestead Strike. The image harkens back to the muscular iron puddler as a symbol of skill and strength. The optimism of the union movement that was being recognized and mobilized into the mammoth production effort of World War II is symbolized by the bright sun overhead. It recalls the sacrifice of those workers who were “killed while striking against Carnegie Steel in defense of their American rights.”
Steel Workers Organizing Committee marker honoring labor’s martyrs of the 1892 uprising in Homestead, Pennsylvania
The movement to publicly memorialize the Homestead struggle began at a commemoration on July 5, 1936. At a rally held at the 7th Street playground addressed by Judge Michael Musmanno and Lieutenant Governor, Thomas Kennedy, a former mineworker union officer, a Steel Worker Declaration of Independence was endorsed. “Through their control over the hours we work, the wages we receive, and the conditions of labor, and through their denial of our right to organize freely and bargain collectively, the Lords of steel try to rule us as did the royalists against whom our forefathers rebelled.” By the time the memorial was erected, free speech and union rights had finally come to Homestead.
McKees Rocks Strike (1909)
The strike at the Pressed Steel Car Company in McKees Rocks marked a major industrial rebellion by Eastern and Southern European immigrants. Two months of intense labor struggle demonstrated the immigrants’ fighting spirit and organizational ability. Unlike the battle at Homestead where the overwhelmingly Irish leadership of the union spoke fluent English and had effective political control of the town government, in McKees Rocks, sixteen different nationalities worked at a large industrial complex of 6-8,000 workers. Workers called the factory “the slaughterhouse” or last chance. Steel railcars were produced on a moving assembly line. A complex pooling system determined wages; so weekly pay was unpredictable.
Workers held mass meetings daily on the “Indian Mound,” the long spur of rock that sheltered the immigrant town from the Ohio River. Violence marked the strike from the beginning as Pearl Berghoff, “king of the strikebreakers,” imported hundreds of replacements. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) joined the struggle in early August. The conflict came to a head with an all out battle in front of the gates on August 22, “Bloody Sunday,” when at least eleven were killed. Three days later, Eugene Debs, Socialist party leader and three-time candidate for the presidency of the United States, spoke from the Indian Mound to 10,000 gathered in solidarity with the strikers. The strike ended with improved conditions, but a split between immigrant workers and skilled second-generation Americans undermined the victory until a USW contract was signed in 1940.
Presston Workers Housing
At the downriver end of the Pressed Steel industrial complex, the company built two parallel streets of duplex housing leading to the river. These houses were crowded with immigrant workers in 1909, and the working-class community remains intact today. Evictions of immigrant workers from these houses provoked the most intense strike violence. Workers in the plant complained of a plant-wide system of extortion. They had to pay to get a job and then pay to keep it. The system of company stores and housing regulated life beyond the gates of the factory and enforced a system of industrial servitude.
Father A.E. Toner the pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church wrote: “Men are persecuted, robbed and slaughtered, and their wives are abused in a manner worse than death…It is a pit of infamy where men are driven lower than the degradation of slaves and forced to sacrifice their wives and daughters to the villainous foreman…to be allowed to work. It is a disgrace to a civilized country. A man is given less consideration than a dog and dead bodies are simply kicked aside while men are literally driven to their death.” The role of the churches in building the community are still evident in the spires and domes of the Slovak, Ukrainian Orthodox, Ukrainian Catholic, Russian Orthodox, the Rusyn Byzantine Catholic churches that rise over the “Bottoms” forming one of the most unique urban landscapes in the entire region.
NLRB v. J&L (1937) Supreme Court decision, Aliquippa
The J&L Decision of the US Supreme Court was a watershed of 20th century American labor relations. The conservative court had struck down many initiatives of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. In 1935 when the court declared the National Industrial Recovery Act unconstitutional, Congress passed the National Labor Relations or Wagner Act. Industrial turmoil interfering with interstate commerce forced Congress to address the causes of industrial unrest. The Supreme Court ruled “that union was essential to give laborers opportunity to deal on an equality with their employer” and that an “employer may not…intimidate or coerce its employees with respect to their self-organization or representation.”
J&L’s Aliquippa was a very rough town for union organizers. Ethnic groups were segregated into thirteen housing plans to maintain divisions. When J&L fired a succession of union activists, the National Labor Relations Board’s charges of unfair labor practices were challenged all the way to the nation’s highest tribunal. President Roosevelt took the extraordinary step of threatening to “pack the court” by adding six new judges. This threat resulted in one Justice changing his vote and the Wagner Act was upheld 5-4. This was called the “switch in time that saved nine.” When bargaining failed, workers struck. It was only the dramatic intervention of Pennsylvania Governor, George Earle, at the plant gate that avoided violence and achieved a union contract. Aliquippa workers rejoiced carrying signs: “The workers of America now free men.”
Phil Murray tower, grave and bridge
Pittsburgh’s Phil Murray was the dominant labor leader in America during the 1940s and early 1950s. A longtime union leader in the United Mineworkers, he was a close collaborator with its president John L. Lewis through the 1920s and 30s. While Lewis was the autocratic and eloquent commander at ease with the rich and powerful, Murray was uncomfortable in the limelight or in high society. A devout Catholic, he socialized with workers and was deeply influenced by the church’s social teachings. Murray did the detail work in negotiations and organization. The two men had a bitter falling out over relations with President Roosevelt and attitude toward war preparations. Murray was named the head of the Steelworkers Organizing Committee (SWOC) by Lewis and succeeded Lewis as president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In 1942, he became the first president of the United Steelworkers. Murray ardently supported FDR and the war effort. Following the defeat of the Axis powers, he reluctantly took on a purge of Communist Party union leaders in the CIO after they broke ranks with the Democratic Party in the 1948 election. Father Charles Owen Rice, Pittsburgh’s labor priest, was a close confidant and ally. Murray is buried near St. Anne Church in Castle Shannon where Rice was pastor. The United Steelworkers built a bell tower there in his honor. On Labor Day, 2007, the 10th Street Bridge connecting downtown with the former steel-making district of South Side was named for Philip Murray.
Other Points of Interest:
Robena Mine disaster of 1962 – A marker, honoring 37 killed in an explosion at Robena mine. The Robena disaster helped spur the Miners for Democracy Movement against the leadership of UMW President Tony Boyle that led among other reforms to federal Black Lung legislation and the creation of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Rt. 21 near Masontown, and also, Greene County Coal Miners Memorial, I-79 Pennsylvania Welcome Center, Whiteley.
Jock Yablonski – A marker for this UMW leader and dissident who in 1969, shortly after his defeat as a union reform candidate, was killed with his wife Margaret, and daughter, Charlotte. Soon afterwards, reformers were elected to union leadership. Roadside marker, 3rd & Wood St., California.