Steelmaking and Pittsburgh go together like Hamilton and smog. The sturdy metal—glue of the Industrial Revolution and much corporate progress since—is forged in commercial ovens of hell-and-brimstone in parts of the world wherever water, iron and coal are available in sufficient quantities. However, two other resources are required to ensure the success of the enterprise: hard-nosed, greedy owners and a compliant workforce, willing to risk life and limb in the service of profit.
In Rory Kennedy’s The Homestead Strike, the events leading up to armed conflict between locked-out union workers and an army-for-hire (Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency) and the far-reaching consequences of the skirmish are chronicled with skill and substance. The re-enactments are competent if not compelling, the archival footage and—similar to techniques in Gold Rush (cross-reference below)—3-D stills score high on the road to “being there.” The music of Sheldon Mirowitz—particularly the drum-and-horn drama as the combatants take their positions—reinforces the action effectively.
Martin Sheen’s narration is first-rate, yet the discrepancy between his Andrew “Carnaygie” and the platoon of historians, professors and relatives’ “Carnegie” adds a false note to the tale of systemic union breaking.
Ironies abound. Henry Frick, the Scottish steel baron’s micro manager and business partner, will stop at nothing to break the union of 3,800 skilled and unskilled workers in the gargantuan Homestead plant. Even before the current contract expires, he’s had a 10-foot-tall perimeter fence built around the huge workplace. Making a final offer that he knows can’t be accepted, the workers reject it and are locked out. 300 Pinkertons, of the same working class as the steelers, barge down the river and attempt to secure the mill then protect the soon-to-arrive scab replacements.
Once the dust settles, seven so-called strikers and 3 Pinkertons lie dead. The remaining rent-a-cops are literally driven out of town—looks like the union has won.
During this confrontation, Carnegie is off fishing in his beloved highlands while Pittsburgh burns—all the better to deny involvement later on. Similarly, on July 6, 1892, Frick, like good commanders-in-chief everywhere, remained in his estate while his locked-out employees and hired guns duked it out. Learning of the setback, he appealed to his good buddies in the state militia who were kind enough to respond with a trainload of 8,500 troops to retake Fort Frick on July 12. General George Snowdon derided the pesky leaders “You trespassed and shot innocent men,” then sent them packing without the need for a single volley.
Public opinion was mixed until the providential assassination attempt by self-proclaimed anarchist Alexander Berkman. Despite a pair of bullets lodging in his frame and numerous stab wounds, Frick soldiered on at his desk and turned the tide of public opinion (the unthinkable notion of attacker-for-hire never mentioned; Selective Conspiracy Theories “R”Uus).
Frick’s great granddaughter is still unrepentant. “You cannot invade someone’s private property,” she explains. True enough. But paying miserable wages, providing squalid accommodation and horrendous working conditions—12 hour shifts the norm—then calling in the army when the private dicks fail is OK? And a country that was founded by invading the private property of its indigenous population is a different situation?
No worries. Soon the scabs return to work and, finally, the “strikers” vote to capitulate in late November. Happily for the noted philanthropist, Carnegie, most wages were then cut by 50%—all the more cash to redistribute and continue his good works in the guilt-removing tradition of so many worldly industrialists. JWR