Monday, June 11, 2012

The Charity of Carnegie

Owner of the Carnegie Steel Works, Andrew Carnegie was called the "Richest Man in the World." Carnegie's hundreds of millions accounted for about 0.60% of America's GDP and when adjusted into to-days value, he was worth anywhere from $75 billion to $297.8 billion. All over Scotland towns possess libraries thanks to endowments and the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie. However,  he did not show the same charity to his workforce. Carnegie holding to the widely held theory of "Social Darwinism" declared that direct charitable 'handouts' would interfere with humans' competition for survival and impede the progress of the race.

Andrew Carnegies family were effectively exiled out of Scotland by the rich ruling classes because both his father and his uncle were active and strong leaders of the Chartist movement. The Chartists were demanding that the working class people were given the vote and the right to stand for election so they could take political power from the rich and lead to a far fairer society. His father was a weaver dependent on employment in the big textile factories was sacked by the rich owners for his political views and word got round that he was a “troublemaker” and effectively unemployable. With no social benefits to support the family they were had no choice but to sell up every stick of furniture they owned and move to the USA in 1848. Like many of his contemporaries, Carnegie hired someone less fortunate substitute and serve in his place in the Union army during the Civil War. Too much money was to be made from Army Department contracts to personally risk life and limb.

After the Civil War the industrial revolution in the United States really began to accelerate and led to dramatic changes in labour. Traditionally, Americans owned small proprietorships. With the introduction of automated machinery and the specialisation of tasks, workers found their economic position declining. Employers hired unskilled labourers for many of the positions and increasingly demanded longer and longer hours at a lower wage from their workers. The rise of labour unions led to an increase in demands on the part of the workers for shorter hours, better pay, and safer working conditions. Employers realised that any concessions to labour would ultimately reduce profits, so negotiations usually proved futile to the labour unions. By the 1880s strikes began to occur with some frequency, often resulting in violence and bloodshed.

Carnegie started by building iron bridges for the railroads, then cashed in with steel and by acquiring competitors grew and became, US Steel,  the largest steel company in the States. Carnegie bought up coalfields to feed his furnaces and expanded into railroads as large users of steel he could then ensure they only bought his steel for trucks and rolling stock etc. His power and greed to become even richer however created clashes with the growing union movement right across his industrial empire. He was ruthless enough to do anything to retain his financial empire no matter what the cost to others. Carnegie expressed support of the right to unionise such as when he wrote "The right of the working-men to combine and to form trades-unions is no less sacred than the right of the manufacturer to enter into associations and conferences with his fellows" , but something did not ring true about his words when it came to strikes in his own factories. His quest to make his steel cheap and affordable, thus the key to making profits, adversely affected Carnegie's workers. Cheaper steel invariably meant lower wages and more dangerous working conditions, as efficiency trumped safety in Carnegie's mills. Further, Andrew Carnegie's quest to reduce labour costs by investing in mechanization put people's jobs in jeopardy. Under Carnegie, workers within the steel company routinely worked seven days a week, twelve hours a day. Carnegie gave his laborers but one holiday off a year, July 4. Working conditions were dangerous and sometimes deadly, many workers laboured with no breaks, and the average pay in for the common unskilled laborer in the Carnegie Steel Company was just above $500 a year, averaging $10 a day, often just 14 cents an hour.  And because Carnegie was heavily anti-union, the job security of his labourers was always at great risk. He was an industrialist who was willing to employ both strike breakers from out of state and armed guards to defeat strikers using whatever means was necessary including bombing and shooting of strike leaders. Les Standiford’s account  of Carnegie and relationship with his iron-fisted business partner and trusted company manager, Henry Clay Frick reveals a hypocrite who prided himself on being a friend of the working man, while at the same time planning and executing what turned out to be one of the bloodiest labour lock-outs in U.S. history, the Homestead Strike.  Andrew Carnegie was to become not just a union basher but gave the orders which would lead to strikers at his Homestead steel factory in July 1892 being physically beaten up and shot dead.

At Carnegie’s Homestead Steel Mill, after an unsuccessful campaign to rid the Homestead mill of the militant Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, Andrew Carnegie went off to his Scottish Highland estate on vacation but  just before he left, Carnegie instructed the head of the  plant  Henry Clay Frick to  reduce wages by 25 percent and end union recognition. Frick  handed the committee representing the company union (to which only about 800 of the 3,800 workers belonged) the new contract "proposal," with no explanation. The union, of course, rejected the proposal. With negotiations between Frick and the unionised steelworkers now concluded without a contract, Frick locked out the workers, fenced off the mill and called in the Pinkertons, the private police force so vicious its activities were outlawed in 11 states. The Pinkerton Detective Agency had been started Allan Pinkerton, born in the Gorbals, an ex-Chartist and a slavery abolitionist activist yet by 1872, Pinkertons were being hired by the Spanish Government to help suppress a revolution in Cuba which intended to end slavery and give citizens the right to vote. The Pinkertons was becoming very active in smashing strikes. Some dozen or so Irish miners had been sent to gallows thanks to Pinkerton agents who infiltrated the Molly Maguires. The Pinkertons were a private army contracted to protect factories when strikes were looming. Pinkerton’s would send in hundreds of men all issued with Winchester rifles with instructions to use them if lives or property belonging to factory owners were threatened. Their people were involved in shootings of strike leaders and had even used a bomb to attack a union headquarters in Chicago a couple years earlier. That reputation was known to everyone involved including Carnegie!

Carnegie was not holding back from any confrontation with his strikers. Frick had a hard line reputation for ruthlessness against unions and strikers. Frick had previously employed Pinkerton’s Agency to break up strikes on several occasions for example, in 1884 to protect Hungarians and Slavs employed as strike-breakers to work in his coal fields, in 1891 to protect Italian strike-breakers, when the above Hungarians and Slavs went on strike.  Full scale violence erupted when Frick hired out of state workers to continue operating the factory during the strike. Pinkerton’s bought in 300 men fully armed and ready to use whatever force was necessary to win the fight against strikers. Local strike leaders were attacked and  shot by Pinkerton’s men as an example to other strikers. The strikers were then supplied with guns by local community members and retaliated. The Pinkerton men were surrounded and pinned down behind hastily erected barricades. People were dying from wounds and no help could be given by either side as they lay there caught in the cross fire. Pinkerton’s men tried to surrender three times waving a white flag on a stick but each time sharpshooters broke the stick in two with bullets. They were later allowed to leave the area but only after severe retribution was given leaving many agency men with broken bones and severe injuries. It was effectively a civil war with revenge being extracted by the winners. Over 8,000  state militia to occupied Homestead and protect the strikebreakers who would be put to work at the mill. The strike and sympathy strikes at other Carnegie plants continued until November, but practically speaking it was all over once the militia marched into town.

Pinkerton’s had a history of using violence to break up strikes. Their people were involved in shootings of strike leaders and had even used a bomb to attack a union headquarters in Chicago a couple years earlier. That reputation was known to everyone involved including Carnegie! Ten men were killed during the clashes at Homestead seven of them were strikers and three Pinkerton’s men. Previous strikes at his businesses also resulted in deaths of strikers. It was during the Homestead strike that the anarcho-communist Alexander Berkman to avenge the workers shot Frick in an attempted assassination and was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment.

 Although Carnegie was out of the country at the time and although he may not personally have pulled the trigger, cables he sent to Frick clearly show he supported the move to employ strike-breakers and gave instructions to Frick do whatever was necessary to win the battle against the strikers. Carnegie was fully complicit in how the Homestead incident was handled  and he himself wrote: "The handling of this case on the part of the company has my full approval and sanction."  Carnegie and Frick broke the strike. After the union surrendered and called off the strike the Carnegie owned steel mill slashed wages even further, imposed a longer work day and blacklisted over 500 men who would never again work in the mills again. The union lost virtually its entire treasury supporting strikers and successfully defending them against attempts by Carnegie to have them convicted of murder and other crimes.Trade unionism was effectively crushed at Homestead. As a result, unionism would die in steel plants throughout the country. By 1900, not a single steel plant in Pennsylvania remained union. By 1910, the union had no members at all. Unionism had been eradicated from the entire steel industry, and though the output of steel mills had doubled and the number of working hours had increased from 10hrs to 12hrs a day,  pay barely increased. In many mills, it actually decreased. Workers would have virtually no say in their conditions or wages, and while the company's profits soared, the common labourer was reduced to a state of semi-slavery.

Inevitably, Carnegie  and Frick fell out and nearly thirty years after the Homestead debacle, Carnegie dispatched a servant bearing a letter begging his old partner to let bygones be bygones “You can tell Carnegie I’ll meet him. Tell him I’ll see him in Hell, where we both are going.” Frick was obviously labouring under no illusions about the moral stands he and Carnegie had taken in clawing their way to the top. Perhaps by giving away his money it was an attempt by Carnegie  to justify what he had done to get that money - and paying penance and buying absolution for his sins. It was the poverty wages of the great majority of his workers, on whose backs that Carnegie had earned his fortune. The bloody struggles of 1892, the hired assassins, the hired thugs, demonstrated to working people the ruthlessness of the many-times-over  millionaire Andrew Carnegie. In Dunfermline, his birth-place, there is a museum in his honour but he is a man all Scottish workers should  villify rather than respect.

Sing ho, for we know you, Carnegie;
God help us and save us, we know you too well;
You're crushing our wives and you're starving our babies;
In our homes you have driven the shadow of hell.
Then bow, bow down to Carnegie,
Ye men who are slaves to his veriest whim;
If he lowers your wages cheer, vassals, then cheer.
Ye are nothing but chattels and slaves under him.

 "A Man Named Carnegie"

See more on the Homestead Strike here

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