Workers’ rights were still an alien concept to the industrialists of the 1890s. In 1892, Andrew Carnegie’s steel mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania, decided to cut workers’ wages and extend working hours to offset the fall in steel prices. This was a common practice in most industries, and factory owners often called in armed troops to force strikers to return to work. Nevertheless, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers declared a strike among its workers, hoping to shift the national conversation about workers’ rights.
After months of conflict between the Homestead workers, Pinkerton detectives, and hired troops, the union was forced to concede. Carnegie rehired the workers at lower wages, and leaders agreed to longer hours. The strike is considered a failure, but it helped draw attention to labor conditions in the U.S. and exposed the hypocrisy of seemingly pro-union executives. Union leaders of the twentieth century used the Homestead Strike as a source of inspiration, drawing important lessons for more successful causes in the next century.
As the strike’s aftermath demonstrates, union leaders were fundamentally pragmatists. They disobeyed company policy when it furthered their goals, and cooperated with Carnegie when they needed to. This focus on results is another type of particularist disobedience. Workers realized that disobedience was not a goal in itself, but merely a step toward other, more tangible goals like higher wages and better working conditions. They were willing to accept temporary losses to avoid further bloodshed in Homestead, but never lost sight of their ultimate objectives.