Labor Day 2013 : Remembering Our History
August 26, 2013
Labor Day 2013 – Remembering Our History
by LUCA Advisory Council Chair and Local 2195 Webmaster John T. Davis
Labor Day again is upon us and the last hooray of summer. However, it would benefit us all to spend the day contemplating the heroes of the labor movement and the struggles they endured in the plight of working families. While there are many stories of men and women who have taken on the robber barons and won, it is also important to remember those brave souls who fought and lost. Taking on a corporation is never easy – they often control elected officials and ultimately the law, and through the ravages of time many a good worker has lost their life defending workers rights. One such story is of the Homestead Strike at the steel mill at Homestead, Pennsylvania in 1892.
Industrialist Andrew Carnegie owned the Homestead Mill whose workers were represented by the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. Carnegie publically supported unions, having been quoted as saying “a steel mill isn’t worth a single drop of human blood.” That made for good sound bites to the press, but Carnegie by actions was a totally different person. Leading up the expiration of the contract, Carnegie left the country on vacation and placed Henry Frick in charge of the operations. Frick vowed to break the union with Carnegie secretly going along with the plans, as Carnegie ordered the plant to build up inventory to prepare to force the union out on strike.
The steel industry was doing well at the time and the union asked for a wage increase. Frick countered by demanding a 22% wage cut. To make matters worse he set a short time table for negotiations. Frick told employees once the contract was agreed to (the one he demanded) the Homestead Mill would cease to recognize the union. Carnegie had been preparing for a war for a while, and had started constructing a fence around the facility in January of that year. On June 29, Frick locked the workers out of the plant and the union met with its members to review the contract offer. Since there was another day left on the current contract, locking out the workers violated that agreement. Not interested in taking pay cuts, the members voted to strike.
Frick and Carnegie placed snipers around the property to shoot striking workers. Frick planned on reopening the plant on July 6 with replacement workers, and hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to remove the locked out workers by force. Over three hundred Pinkertons were issued rifles and assembled on a barge outside Pittsburg on the Ohio River. The plan was to arrive under the cover of darkness and ambush the locked out workers protesting outside the plant. Frick’s plan was to drive away the union workers so he could bring in the replacement workers he had assembled from Boston, St. Louis and Europe.
However, Frick’s plan of attacking the workers with a private army was discovered and the locked out union members were prepared. When the Pinkerton’s attempted to land in the darkness, the workers were waiting and battle began. A number were injured and killed on both sides, as the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers officials went to the Sheriff and asked him to arrange a meeting with Frick. He refused, knowing the longer the battle raged the more likely Governor Robert E. Pattison would be to call out the state militia to end the conflict. That would have meant a green light for Frick to bring in his replacement workers. The battle dragged on for days with both sides suffering casualties. Andrew Carnegie was safely away on his European vacation and Frick safely behind the walls of his headquarters, while workers from the plant and the Pinkerton workers shed each other’s blood.
By September the mill was back in operation with replacement workers shipped in from Eastern Europe by Carnegie and Frick. The battle almost bankrupted the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers as the plant was no longer represented by a union. The replacement workers worked for even lower pay and Carnegie saw profits soar. In 1890 Carnegie was making ranking in profits of about one and half million a year. By 1900, after breaking the unions and lowering wages Carnegie was making forty million a year.
In 1900 J.P. Morgan talked Carnegie into allowing him to merge several companies with Carnegie’s to form US Steel and take the company public. They ended up selling $400 million more in stock than the company was worth. When you have to pay dividends this can be a problem, so again workers wages were lowered to boost profits even higher to cover the additional stock that was sold. Workers paid the price again to make those at the top of the food chain even richer. Morgan’s nephew was appointed Secretary of the Navy and he declared the “all steel” Navy, replacing all wooden ships with metal, driving steel prices higher and cost the government millions that was funneled directly into the pockets of Carnegie and Morgan.
While the Pinkerton Agency was run by men or questionable character, many of the agents were regular working class people just doing a job- just as the locked out workers at Homestead. These two groups ended fighting each other with Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick repeating the profits from the bloodshed. Ten years later workers would be under fire again to cover J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie’s ponzi scheme of a stock sale.
This Labor Day we all need to understand the importance of standing together as workers. Over 125 years ago Andrew Carnegie pitted worker against worker to line his pockets. Today the same thing is occurring all over the country again, except it is the Koch Brothers pulling the strings instead of Carnegie and Morgan. The Koch’s are two of the richest men in the country and two of the largest polluters. They own oil, coal and paper mills. The Tea Party is their version of the Pinkertons from the late 1800s. Americans for Prosperity is the front group that organizes the Tea Party actions and is paid for by the Koch Brothers. Nationwide they have turned worker against worker with their billions spent to confuse workers on the issues. Tea Party rallies are usually filled with workers who are marching in support of actions that actually hurt their own families. However, the conservative media has been used by the Kochs to misrepresent the issues and confuse people to the point of voting against their own best interest.
Governors such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Paul Le Page in Maine gave tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations, sending their state budgets in the red. Once the budget was in the red they have blamed teachers, police officers and fire fighters for the states woes. They convince working class people their woes are because of teachers and other state employees; they convince them their problems are because of the poor.
In 2009 Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy held an anti-labor Labor Day picnic in West Virginia that featured Ted Nugent, Hank Williams, Jr. John Rich and Fox News personality Sean Hannity. Blankenship used the stage as a bully pulpit against the Mine Safety and Health Administration for what he considered “over reaching their authority.” Massey Energy operates several coal mines in the country including the one in West Virginia where the rally was held. Then on April 05, 2010 an explosion at a Massey Mine in West Virginia killed 29 miners. After an extensive investigation the MSHA concluded it was flagrant violations by Massey that caused the buildup of coal dust that caused the explosion. So much for Blankenship’s claims of “over reaching” when their actions resulted in the death of 29 of 35 miners in their mine.
This Labor Day every working person in this country needs to commit to standing together as one body- union and non-union to fight back against the anti-worker forces in this country. Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. We can’t afford to spend another 125 years trying to claw back to a semblance of fairness in the workplace and marketplace. This Labor Day I encourage all workers to stand together and make the day mean more than a cookout.
Peace my Brothers and Sisters,
John T. Davis
LUCA Advisory Council Chair