Image courtesy of the Battle of Homestead Foundation.

These days, Homestead is where you go for a quiet evening of browsing the aisles at Target, maybe a movie and a bite to eat at P.F. Chang’s or Primanti Brothers, or drinks at Golden Age Beer Co.

But 130 years ago, it was a war zone. Imagine the plumes of smoke from hundreds of Winchester rifles, barges on the Monongahela set ablaze by fireworks used as weapons and the state militia occupying city streets. It’s often called the Homestead Steel Strike, and that’s how it started. July 6, 1892 rapidly turned into an actual shooting war between the might of the Carnegie Steel Company and its armed Pinkerton “detectives,” and the steelworkers of Homestead, their families and much of the town.

Image courtesy of the Battle of Homestead Foundation.

This crucial historical turning point in the American labor movement is the subject of a free event on Wednesday, July 6, from 9:30 a.m. to noon at the Pump House in Munhall. Located at 880 E. Waterfront Drive, the landmark structure is one of the last surviving remnants of the steel industry from that era. The Battle of Homestead Foundation will host speakers, filmmakers, music and a proclamation from Allegheny County Council commemorating the historic battle site.

“Homestead was in many ways a unique municipality — a town that was thriving,” says Battle of Homestead Foundation President John Haer. “The mill was new, with new technology, the Bessemer furnaces.  The ironworkers were a prominent part of the industrial processes, and in the mill they were experiencing a challenge to their authority.”

This was a different kind of labor movement that, Haer says, it was not it was not regulated by any laws. The rights of workers were not protected by any laws of the country.

Though Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick hired Pinkertons to try and retake the mill with a daring and dangerous amphibious assault from barges on the Monongahela, the town rallied to defeat them with burning boats, dynamite, gunfire and improvised fortifications.

But when the state militia arrived, it sided with Carnegie and Frick. Things went from triumph to crushing defeat fairly quickly, and the saga was covered by the press worldwide.

“The defeat of the union signified the end of the possibility for a different kind of labor relations that would be more cooperative between owners and management,” says Haer. “It established a very firm hold by owners of businesses, allowing the power of the corporate trust to dictate terms and conditions of work and treating employees under assumptions of English law, which is essentially that employees are property of the employer.”

The state militia also prevented local law enforcement from organizing themselves, and any attempt by the workforce to prevent strikebreakers from taking their jobs.

“There was a drastic change in hours and working conditions,” says Haer. “And for the next 40 or 50 years, to work in the steel mill remained an incredibly dangerous job. Prior to the strike, people worked 8- to 10-hour days with Sundays off. After, they’d be working seven days a week, 12 hours a day, working rotating shifts.”

Image courtesy of the Battle of Homestead Foundation.

The presentation will include filmmaker Steffi Domike, director of “The River Ran Red,” labor singer/songwriter Mike Stout,  Homestead community historian Tammy Hepps, Battle of Homestead site historian Maura Bainbridge, labor historian Joel Woller and political scientist Joe White.

The foundation maintains a historical archive, produces a podcast on work trends and presents a diverse array of labor-themed cultural programs throughout the year.

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.