a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Monday, February 2, 2009

Blame Frick for labor's love of party

“Meet You in Hell,” makes it clear why most American steelworkers have chosen the Democratic party over the GOP.

The author of the book about the bloody Homestead lockout of 1892 spells it out early: labor felt it had been snookered by management into voting for Benjamin Harrison for president in 1888, a Republican who defeated an incumbent for the office. Going into the election, Harrison promised tariffs on steel that would boost steel production and increase wages for steelworkers.

But once Harrison took command of the White House, Pittsburgh industrialists Henry Clay “King of Coke” Frick and his partner in steel, Andrew Carnegie, set out to bust a union at their Homestead works and reduce wages to increase their incredible profits. The deception set the stage for the infamous 1892 battle of Homestead.

While the relationship of Frick and Carnegie may sound like a boring read, author Les Standiford delivers their rag-to-riches stories as if these men were stars of a soap opera.

It begins with Carnegie, near death, sending a messenger to deliver a note to Frick, his neighbor on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Frick, still angry because Carnegie had thrown him under the bus at Homestead, agreed to the meet request before crumpling the note and throwing it at the messenger. “Tell him I’ll see him in Hell, where we both are going,” Frick quipped.

The line can be interpreted as an admission by Frick that he and his archrival deserved to be punished for their love of money and distaste of the working class. This was a man who chose greed over common sense when he hired Pinkerton guards to seize the Homestead plant during a strike orchestrated by the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. The drama unfolded while Carnegie vacationed in his Scottish castle and shopped for something akin to a nickelodeon.

The 300 Pinkerton men who arrived by barge on the Monongahela River to secure order at the mill were not expecting much trouble. However, they were met by a mob of angry workers and their wives, who threw sticks and rocks at them. Another boat was lit afire and steered toward the guards, but it burned to the water before causing any injuries. Gunfire was exchanged over the course of a dozen hours, claiming the lives of three workers and seven guards. In the end, labor came out no further ahead, while Frick and Carnegie would forever become the poster children for ruthless capitalists.

Even a local minister condemned Frick, calling him a toad and the least-respected man among the nation’s labor force.

Labor’s love for the Democratic party became a tradition set in stone after Harrison competed just one term in office. He was defeated on the heels of that heated summer of 1892 in Homestead by Grover Cleveland, his Democratic challenger for the office of president. The city of Detroit later refused a gift of a library from Carnegie while he built hundreds of them across America.

And for generations to follow, steelworkers cursed Frick at the polls after pulling levers to vote straight Democrat at local, state and federal elections. The United Steelworkers of America in 2006 gave $2.4 million to the party that reclaimed control of both the House and Senate in the November election that year.

So it should come as no surprise that steelworkers endorsed Barack Obama in the November presidential election over John McCain, issuing this statement:

“He is clearly the candidate who can best lead our nation out of the dark period of economic decline created by the Bush administration’s allegiance to Wall Street profiteering at the expense of worker prosperity.”

Labor has a strong memory.

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