100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire

“The story is how Triangle came to have such an influence, through organizing, voting, raising awareness, working within the system. That story is still relevant to solve the problems we have today.”

David Von Drehle, author of the 2003 book, Triangle: The Fire That Changed America

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Working Heroes

John L. Lewis (1880 – 1969)

President of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) from 1920 until 1960 and founding president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), John Llewellyn Lewis was the dominant voice shaping the labor movement in the 1930s. The CIO owed its existence in large measure to Lewis, who was a tireless and effective advocate of industrial unionism and of government assistance in organizing basic industry.

Samuel Gompers (1850 – 1924)

Samuel Gompers was the first and longest-serving president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL); it is to him, as much as to anyone else, that the American labor movement owes its structure and characteristic strategies. Under his leadership, the AFL became the largest and most influential labor federation in the world. It grew from a marginal association of 50,000 in 1886 to an established organization of nearly 3 million in 1924 that had won a permanent place in American society. In a society renowned for its individualism and the power of its employer class, he forged a self-confident workers’ organization dedicated to the principles of solidarity and mutual aid. It was a singular achievement.

Asa Philip Randolph (1889 – 1979)

Philip Randolph brought the gospel of trade unionism to millions of African American households. Randolph led a 10-year drive to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) and served as the organization’s first president. Randolph directed the March on Washington movement to end employment discrimination in the defense industry and a national civil disobedience campaign to ban segregation in the armed forces. The nonviolent protest and mass action effort inspired the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Photo Credit: The George Meany Memorial Archives

Thousands of Americans were out of work in the 1970s, as industries increasingly shifted production to low-wage countries.
Photo Credit: The George Meany Memorial Archives
The National Labor Relations Act, signed by President Roosevelt in 1935, protected the right of American workers to organize and bargain collectively.
Photo Credit: The George Meany Memorial Archives
Women won the right to vote in 1920.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Pullman Strike began on May 11, 1894.

1892 Homestead Strike

The 1892 Homestead strike inPennsylvania and the ensuing bloody battle instigated by the steel plant’s management remain a transformational moment in U.S.history, leaving scars that have never fully healed after five generations.

The skilled workers at the steel mills in Homestead, seven miles southeast of downtown Pittsburgh, were members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers who had bargained exceptionally good wages and work rules.Homestead’s management, with millionaire Andrew Carnegie as owner, was determined to lower its costs of production by breaking the union.

Carnegie Steel Co. was making massive profits—a record $4.5 million just before the 1892 confrontation, which led Carnegie himself to exclaim, “Was there ever such a business!” But he and his chairman, Henry Frick, were furious workers had a voice with the union. “The mills have never been able to turn out the product they should, owing to being held back by the Amalgamated men,” Frick complained to Carnegie.

Even more galling for them was that, as Pittsburgh labor historian Charles McCollester later wrote in The Point of Pittsburgh, “The skilled production workers at Homesteadenjoyed wages significantly higher than at any other mill in the country.”

So management acted.

First, as the union’s three-year contract was coming to an end in 1892, the company demanded wage cuts for 325 employees, even though the workers had already taken large pay cuts three years before. During the contract negotiations, management didn’t make proposals to negotiate. It issued ultimatums to the union. The local newspaper pointed out that “it was not so much a question of disagreement as to wages, but a design upon labor organization.”

Carnegie and Frick made little effort to hide what they had in mind. Their company advertised widely for strikebreakers and built a 10-foot-high fence around the plant that was topped by barbed wire. Management was determined to provoke a strike.

Meanwhile, the workers organized the town on a military basis. They were “establishing pickets on eight-hour shifts, river patrols and a signaling system,” according to McCollester.

Frick did what plenty of 19th-century businessmen did when they were battling unions. He hired the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which was notorious for such activities as infiltrating its agents into unions and breaking strikes-and which at its height had a larger work force than the entire U.S. Army.

When Frick plotted to sneak in 300 Pinkerton agents on river barges before dawn on July 6, word spread across town as they were arriving and thousands of workers and their families rushed to the river to keep them out. Gunfire broke out between the men on the barge and the workers on land. In the mayhem that ensued, the Pinkertons surrendered and came ashore, where they were beaten and cursed by the angry workers.

At the end of the battle between the Pinkertons and nearly the entire town, seven workers and three Pinkertons were dead. Four days later, 8,500 National Guard forces were sent at the request of Frick to take control of the town and steel mill. After winning his victories, Frick announced, “Under no circumstances will we have any further dealing with the Amalgamated Association as an organization. This is final.” And in November, the Amalgamated Association collapsed.

According to labor historian David Brody, in his highly acclaimed Steelworkers in America: The Nonunion Era, the daily wages of the highly skilled workers at Homestead shrunk by one-fifth between 1892 and 1907, while their work shifts increased from eight hours to 12 hours.

That was not the only measure of the steel workers’ defeat. As Sidney Lens pointed out in his classic The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs, membership in the Amalgamated Association plummeted from 24,000 to 10,000 in 1894 and down to 8,000 in 1895. Meanwhile, the Carnegie Steel Co.’s profits rose to a staggering $106 million in the nine years afterHomestead. And for 26 long years—until the last months of World War I in 1918—union organizing among steelworkers was crushed.

At the end of the 19th century, Homestead inspired a song well known around the country, “Father Was Killed by the Pinkerton Men.” The lyrics of this deeply angry ballad began: “‘Twas in Pennsylvania town not very long ago,/Men struck against reduction of their pay./Their millionaire employer with philanthropic show/Had closed the works ’till starved they would obey./They fought for home and right to live where they had toiled so long,/But ere the sun had set, some were laid low.”

Sources

Demarest, David (editor), The River Ran Red: Homestead 1892.University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992. Krause, Paul, The Battle forHomestead, 1880-1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992. McCollester, Charles, The Point of Pittsburgh.Battle of Homestead Foundation, 2008. Brody, David, Steelworkers in America: The Nonunion Era. Harper & Row, 1969. Lens, Sidney, The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs.Haymarket Books, 2008.

Credit: Harper's Weekly