Labor Heritage at Homestead

The Battle of Homestead marks the historic defeat of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AAISW) by the Carnegie Steel Corporation at the Homestead Steel Works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the time of the strike in 1892, the Carnegie Steel Corporation, owned by Andrew Carnegie, was the world’s largest manufacturing firm, and AAISW was the nation’s strongest union.

The Battle of Homestead

The Battle began as a lockout on June 28, 1892 (Burgoyne 1979:33). Workers were upset with the sliding scale wage system, in which the selling price of steel determined wages (Demarest Jr. 1999:25. On July 6th 1892, two barges carried 300 Pinkerton Detectives (hired by the Carnegie Steel Corporation) up the Monongahela River to the Homestead Steel Works. Workers and Homestead citizens, including women and children, confronted the boats near the mill’s still standing Pump House, and a battle erupted (Krause 1992:15-16).

Workers and Homestead residents took up all matters of defense against the Pinkertons, including a Civil War cannon taken from a nearby park.  Luckily for the workers, the outnumbered Pinkertons surrendered by the end of the day. Many were injured, and two or three Pinkerton men died (Krause 1992:25,34-39, Burgoyne 1979:92)

After the worker’s victory, Pennsylvania governor ordered National Guard troops into Homestead. They arrived on July 12 and restored order (Burgoyne 1979:103, Krause 1992:343, Demarest Jr. 1999:126). Replacement workers resumed production at the mill on July 15th (Burgoyne 1979:134).

Discouraged by this news, and increasingly too impoverished to continue striking, support for the strike faded among the workers (Battle of Homestead Foundation 2013). In November, all remaining union members voted to end the strike. The mill rehired most workers by 1893, although they now worked without union benefits or the pride of independence that accompanied these benefits (Demarest Jr, 1999:189, Burgoyne 1979:296).

Homestead Today

Today a shopping center called the Waterfront occupies the site of the Battle of Homestead. Along with shops, it contains hunks of industrial equipment like smoke stacks and a 12,000-ton press, among others. The Pump House, where strikers met the Pinkertons, remains on the property, and is owned by a local heritage organization, not the mall.

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The smoke stacks are the only material from the mill to make the directory, because they are monumental. The stacks can be seen by visitors as they cross the Homestead Grays Bridge from Pittsburgh into Homestead. For this reason, they have been adopted by management and rebranded as a symbol of the shopping center. (link to website)

A sign, “Symbols of Industry,” near the stacks explains their earlier purpose. Here they are described as remnants of the 45-Inch Mill, built during World War II. The sign goes on to describe the steel making technology within this mill.

The sign discusses Homestead as a site of industry, a more politically neutral term than labor. The cheery description of a part of the steelmaking process evokes World War II, to emphasize the involvement of steel in nation building. This fits into the authorized heritage discourse of the site because it emphasizes workers’ patriotism and integration into the ideals of the United States. The scientific discussion this part of steel production makes workers invisible.

116Driving to the back of Lowe’s Home Improvements at the Waterfront, you stumble onto the 12,000-ton hydraulic forging press. This press, the biggest in the mill, was used to press steel into plating for use in building. Although it was originally to
be removed when Lowe’s
purchased the land, it remains in the back of the parking lot. A monumental piece of equipment, the extraction costs outweighed the benefit of moving it, when it could be conveniently hidden by the store itself.

A sign on the press, entitled “Armor for America” explains that, “This 12,00-ton hydraulic forging press is the only surviving turn of the century heavy steel forging press in America. Installed in 1903, it doubled the Homestead Works’ armor plate capacity and enabled the mill to become one of the United States Navy’s largest suppliers of steel for the next fifty years. Many World War II battleships were outfitted with armor plate from this press, including the USS Missouri– the ship on which the Japanese signed the articles of surrender that ended the war.”

Again the text aligns with the authorized heritage discourse, as it emphasizes literal nation building, with Homestead providing the materials which would eventually end World War II. A lower inlay echoes this theme by tying Homestead to national icons. It explains that structural steel from Homestead built the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower and the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

089 The Pumphouse stands out as a place where radical discourse is permitted.  It is physically secluded from the rest of the mall, and owned by a local organization, Rivers of Steel.

Perhaps the most explicitly political of signs at the Waterfront, “Labor Struggle” discusses the Battle of Homestead alongside images of cannon fire and warfare.

The main body of text describes the strike and subsequent battle, and is the only sign at the Waterfront to use the word “labor”. This takes a political stance, where other signs have been neutral. It is notable that this sign stands near the Pump House, a venue spatially removed from the shopping center of the Waterfront. This location means that visitors likely will read it if they specifically stop by the Pump House, rather than coming across it incidentally as they are shopping.

Overall, the Waterfront produces a sanitized version of Homestead, rarely discussing the labor history of the site, unless forced to by material circumstances.  Even so, the Battle of Homestead is only discussed in marginal areas that aren’t controlled by the mall. The closer to shopping areas, the more cordial the discourse, because who wants to consider class warfare when picking out new jeans?

 

Burgoyne, Arthur G.

1979 The Homestead Strike of 1892. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh.

Demarest, David P. Jr and Fannia Weingartner, eds

1992 The River Ran Red. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh.

Krause, Paul

1992 The Battle for Homestead 1880-1892. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh.

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