Prefiguring the Proletarian Dictatorship in the First Homunculus of the Workers’ State

Prefiguring the Proletarian Dictatorship in the First Homunculus of the Workers’ State

Michael Hough

Violence is strongly associated with the labor movement in the popular imagination. From the 8 feet swinging under the Haymarket gallows, to the wave of vengeful indignation which howled across the world after Sacco and Vanzetti got the chair, to the union-sanctioned assassination of Jock Yablonski; violence is as intimately associated with organized and organizing labor today as it always has been.

The Virginia autoworkers who built a giant coffin next to the factory entrance in 2008 painted with the words All Scabs Welcome Here; the other Virginia autoworkers who planted severed cow heads at the homes of scabs in 1996; and so on and so forth is merely the sound of the guttural anguish regurgitated from the class struggle echoing throughout the time dominated by the capitalist social relation.

Emanating from the history of class violence is a word known fairly well to the American public (since it’s one of the only significant episodes of the class struggle taught in public schools) and forms the distillation of these memories and perceptions of the latent, ever incipient barbarity of labor as it rends capitalist society: Homestead– that most spectacular violence offered to history thus far by workers in America. But Homestead’s memory is sustained by the Sorelian myth of the lockout of 1892 and the dead Pinkertons and the ensuing “Carnival of Vengeance” following the workers’ precarious victory, while its historic significance for the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state and the construction of socialism is completely lost.

Many revolutionaries bestow upon the Great Upheaval of 1877 the status of being the answer of American workers to the call of the Paris Commune. By far the most radical local manifestation of that nationwide general strike-insurrection wave over the summer of ’77 occurred in St Louis, where the conscious decision by the leading participants in those events to identify with the methods of the communards was evident in their actions.

However, the course of development of the proletariat of Homestead illustrated the same historic importance as the Commune of Paris by offering the working-class another leap in its lived experience. What separates the two is context: the Paris Commune rose in the midst of war and through the active intervention of socialist revolutionaries (and so became a powerful parallel for the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917), while the course of development of the proletariat of Homestead from 1880 through to its absolute conclusion in 1892 took place in peace time and without the intervention of the socialist movement—demonstrating how the class struggle, absent the context of war and the organized intervention of revolutionaries, organically develops the potential raw materials for the construction of a workers’ state as the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The new steel industry (the barometer of modern capitalism) in Greater Pittsburgh (the American Ruhr) was the perfect vessel to cultivate and incubate this experience. It was the involuntary gathering place of many races, ethnic groups, religious communities; citizens and immigrants, skilled and unskilled, union and non-union. It was as if a microcosm of the international proletariat had been selected, gathered and planted in Allegheny County, and later, within the four barbed wire-lined walls of the Pittsburgh Bessemer Steel Works of Homestead, Pennsylvania.

Unlike the heterogeneous communities of Europe where the domain of monarchs, like the Hapsburg’s empire, spanned the length and breadth of multiple distinct cultures and communities, America was a republic founded after a revolutionary war of independence and the triumph of secular democratic ideology. Capital creates new multicultural communities where such ancient links common to the Old World don’t exist.

Despite taking place in an environment of peace and absent revolutionary intervention, the development of the Homestead steelworkers, their organizations, their escalating struggles, their relations with the American labor movement, their relations with the rest of the working-class and their relations with non-proletarian classes and strata in the town were cognitively tattooed with the fresh experience of the completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the United States: the American civil war and the abolition of chattel slavery.

Through the consequences of the circumstances created by the natural course of capital’s development, the Homestead steelworkers elaborated through their own reactive development– opposite the forces and personifications of capital– their class instinct toward dictatorship as a facet of labor’s class struggles, and through their actions, in the real course of this dual development of labor and capital, reveal in the most practical terms why and how the proletariat becomes the gravediggers of capitalism.


By the 15th century, perfidious techniques for creating an artificial human being were recorded in the manuscripts of alchemists. The homunculus is a pseudo-man fertilized, incubated and born (or more accurately, grown) by a third party outside of a woman’s womb; bringing to mind some of the elaborate etchings from the middle ages which show a learned alchemist agitating a glass vessel containing a little person over a burning fireplace.

The class struggle indicative of capitalist society and the direct product of the capitalist social relation is itself a vessel. Proletarian class consciousness manifests in two forms: that of action preceding consciousness (trade unionism; emanating from the spontaneous class struggle), and consciousness preceding action (communism; emanating from the revolutionary organization—the workers’ political party). Only the former is a direct and immediate product of labor’s class struggles, while the latter develops in response to labor’s class struggles over time; and absent the latter, the former remains imprisoned by the organic course of the spontaneous class struggle.

Absent the intervention of revolutionaries and revolutionary organization, the organic course of the real-existing class struggle compels the working-class to develop mass action dynamics and secrete organs of workers’ control/ power. This organic course created by the terms and conditions of the capitalist social relation drives the working-class toward collisions with the capitalist state and the instinct to replace the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie with the dictatorship of the proletariat, and is the vessel in which these potential raw materials for the construction of a workers’ state are cultivated.

Only the form of proletarian class consciousness indicative of the vanguard of the proletariat, the revolutionary organization, the workers’ political party–consciousness preceding action—is capable of transubstantiating the dynamic of mass action and the organs of workers’ control/power produced and reproduced/generated and regenerated by the spontaneous class struggle, from which the proletarian class consciousness indicative of trade unionism is derived—action preceding consciousness—into raw materials for the construction of a workers’ state and inaugurate the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Every social crisis in which the working-class has escalated its struggles into an acute crisis that challenges ruling institutions, parties and governments and displayed the tendency toward organized force (class violence), was a hollow imitation of the formation of the raw materials necessary to construct a workers’ state as proletarian dictatorship without the potential to become as such due to the absence of revolutionary intervention and revolutionary organization.

Like the homunculus of alchemy, these struggles which develop mass action dynamics and organs of workers’ control/power are only what they ostensibly seem to be in a superficial way: the homunculus only appears to be a man, labor’s acute spontaneous class struggles and organs of control/power only appear to be revolutionary.

The homunculus was not born from a womb, he was grown in a bottle; the acute spontaneous class struggle, its processes and forms absent revolutionary intervention and revolutionary organization appears to signify the potential for socialism, but is incapable of inaugurating the dictatorship of the proletariat without the intervention of the proletarian vanguard, revolutionary intervention, revolutionary organization, the workers’ political party. Like the homunculus in a bottle, labor’s spontaneity and derivative form of proletarian class consciousness is constrained and bound to its vessel, unable to assert an independent existence capable of becoming something more.

The scale of workers’ resistance/demands and concerted/mass actions may topple the political bodies and ruling parties of existing society as workers’ combinations take on the forms of control/power subject to overt politicization. American labor defense guards (1938), French factory occupations (1968) and Portuguese demonstrations of armed workers and peasants (1974) – each episode remained only a homunculus of the forms of the workers’ state, a puppet of limbs and organs absent the potential for the socialist transformation of society inherent to the proletarian dictatorship.

A Fair Day’s Pay for a Fair Day’s Work

Engels posed the question: what does the watchword of trade unionism, a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, mean?

“Now what does political economy call a fair day’s wages and a fair day’s work? Simply the rate of wages and the length and intensity of a day’s work which are determined by competition of employer and employed in the open market” [1]

There is no formula to determine the relationship of the former to the latter and the latter to the former. Wage labor and capital are subject to a reciprocal relation of mutual encroachments under the conditions of the capitalist social relation. What constitutes a fair day’s pay and a fair day’s work is a subject of contestation and fuels the class struggle in the capitalist epoch. In the class struggles of Pittsburgh’s metalworkers, the question of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work was definitively solved from the perspective of the working-class.

The first cluster of permanent trade union formations in America, beginning in 1852 with the formation of the National Typographical Union and running approximately 25 years until the Great Upheaval of 1877, was cemented by the completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the United States: the American Civil War. The Sons of Vulcan (an iron boilers’ union) was formed as a result of the Panic of 1857, but did not significantly develop and expand until the revolutionary civil war period several years after its birth.

At the end of the civil war in 1865, the Sons of Vulcan compelled the ironmasters of the Pittsburgh region to comply with the workers’ demand for a posted wage scale—the first in the American iron industry. It was a rudimentary and informal agreement. A year later in 1866 the ironmasters locked-out the skilled iron boilers in Greater Pittsburgh in an attempt to shed the wage scale and liquidate the Sons of Vulcan entirely from their mills, but in 1867 the skilled metalworkers had succeeded by lasting one day longer than the owners and so emerged victorious. As a result of this victory, the ironmasters were compelled to recognize the iron boilers’ union and negotiate a formal collective bargaining agreement, which took the form of a sliding scale for wages which tied the piece rate paid to the skilled iron boilers in the puddling mills to the market price of iron, with a top rate and a minimum rate of wages.

This sliding scale for wages was signed by both the Sons of Vulcan and the mill owners and remained in effect until 1874 when, in reaction to the Panic of 1873 and the ensuing Long Depression, the ironmasters locked-out the iron boilers again.

Mill owners served notice that they would terminate the 1867 wage scale in response to the precipitous drop in the market price of iron, claiming that the higher wages paid to the unionized iron boilers in the Pittsburgh region had left the owners incapable of competing with non-union mills elsewhere. However, David Harris, president of the Sons of Vulcan, correctly observed that the lock-out of 1874 was really about extracting greater profits at the expense of the value of the workers’ wages:

“The [price] cutting has been done by yourselves. . . The competition is in your own circle. . . the fault lies among yourselves. You have by your own system of undercutting brought the price of iron down to the low figure it is today, and therefore the hard-fisted boilers are not responsible for this condition of affairs. We have not a voice or hand in the making of the price of iron” [2]

Trade unions are those combinations of workers which seek to prevent the price of labor-power from falling below its value [3], something that is intuitively demonstrated in this statement by the president of the Sons of Vulcan. Wages and profits are in a determined and direct proportional relation, while the price of all commodities (except labor-power) is subject to forces beyond this determined relation.

Lacking statistical data to develop their demands for a fair day’s pay to scientific precision, the union’s leaders developed their wage demands on the basis of what they deemed fair, as recounted in the words of Miles Humphries, the man who negotiated the 1867 sliding wage scale:

“The cost of living and the cost of production did not enter into consideration at all, only a fair proportion of the profits or of the selling price” [4]

Without detailed knowledge of the production costs and profits of the mill owners, the workers were obliged to base their wage demands on the market price of iron—the only consistently available and reliable statistic of which they had access.

Due to the low organic composition of capital in the iron industry at that time and the extremely high levels of craft skill involved in iron puddling, productivity was almost entirely determined by the workers alone. While the trade union served as the means by which workers collectively resist capital’s encroachments and formulate demands that encroach upon capital, it also instituted the discipline necessary for solidarity– the prerequisite of trade unionism—by developing a morality of production: thou shalt not be a rate-buster.

Workers who decide to look out for themselves might dramatically raise their individual productivity and output, trying to earn more and more money on the basis of the piece work wage structure. In such instances, employers are all too eager to foster such behavior because it gives them a new reference point to judge the capacity of the workers for greater productivity as a whole: inviting the speed-up– increasing the intensity of work without a corresponding increase in wages.

By absorbing these experiences, the basic definition of the slogan of a fair day’s pay and a fair day’s work emerges, and it’s very simple: whatever the workers say is fair, on both counts, is the content of a fair day’s pay and a fair day’s work.

Isolation, Federation, Amalgamation

The story of each labor organization in Homestead followed the organic course of the practice, substance and structure of trade unionism over time. In his observations of the rail trades, Foster characterized this effect of time on organized and organizing labor as a general tendency:

“Sooner or later, the unions in all industries and in every country find themselves at the point where they are based upon industrial rather than craft lines. In arriving at this stage of development they ordinarily pass through a more or less lengthy evolutionary process, marked by three distinct phases, which I shall call: (1) isolation, (2) federation, (3) amalgamation.

In the first, or isolation phase, the several craft groups in a given industry act independently of each other, recognizing few or no interests in common. Eventually, however, grace to their own unfolding intelligence, to the growing power of the employers, to the elimination of skill by machinery, and to various other factors, they awaken to the ineffectiveness of this individualistic method, and begin to set up offensive and defensive alliances with each other.

This brings them to the second, or federation phase. And, finally, when by the working of the same factors, they perceive their loose federated form, although a big improvement over the previous system, does not develop their maximum power, they gradually fuse themselves together into a unified body along the lines of their industry. Thus they reach the third, or amalgamated phase” [5]

Numerous local unions, each isolated to one craft in one mill, emerged in the American iron industry at the end of the 1840’s. With the Panic of 1857, which led to significant wage cuts and lay-offs, these isolated local unions began to forge alliances with one another. They formed the Sons of Vulcan, a national iron boilers’ union, in 1858 as a federation of these existing local unions. In the rise of the Sons of Vulcan and other metalworkers’ unions after the Civil War in the 1860’s and their decline in the economic crises of the 1870’s, lack of solidarity between the iron crafts led each group of workers to fight the mill owners alone while their co-workers continued working. When the 1866 and 1874 lock-outs resulted in bitter struggles and victories that were won at great cost, the Sons of Vulcan and two other metalworkers’ unions (roll hands and finishers) amalgamated in 1876—creating the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers.

Within the new union, the most advanced fractions of the amalgamated membership fought for an intransigent class line over who would be eligible to carry a union card in the Amalgamated Association.

Few of the union men scabbed during the lock-out of 1874, so the iron manufacturers imported skilled black iron puddlers from Richmond, Virginia to replace the locked-out members of the Sons of Vulcan. Blacklegging was immediately associated with black skin, and a vicious, racist smear campaign by the union was implemented. Because the Sons of Vulcan also did not admit boilers’ helpers or other trades in the iron mills, they were obliged to strike or endure lockouts alone without the active support of the other metalworkers (primarily the skilled heaters, roll hands and other finishers who could keep a mill running). These policies resulted in isolating the union’s members and allowed their employers to roll back past gains and significantly diminish the strength of the organization. A year later the Sons of Vulcan became the kernel of the effort to amalgamate the metalworkers’ trades into one grand organization, which became the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers in 1876. Beginning in 1877, some of its members began agitating for removing racial requirements for membership and promoted organizing skilled black metalworkers into the union. Over the next 3 years they continued to agitate and finally won in 1881, when the union constitution was amended to grant black metalworkers full membership rights and privileges—this broadening also extended to iron boilers’ helpers as well. Racial exclusion and craft isolation were defeated on the basis of solidarity as a material necessity rather than a nice idea. Racist metalworkers were beaten into shape by the minority of their advanced co-workers and by the tangible consequences of their actions, which conspired to compel them to change, whether they wanted to or not.

1882, 1889, 1892

Within a year of beginning operations in the steelworks in Homestead, all of the skilled metalworkers had formed lodges in the Amalgamated Association: Lodge 24 in the blooming mill and converting department (June 1881) and Lodge 11 in the rail mill (October 1881), both formed after quickie strikes.

At the end of 1881, the Irish National Land League established a branch in Homestead which served multiple purposes. While the organization was a political association fighting for the national liberation of Ireland into an independent and democratic Irish republic with a revolutionary agrarian programme, it became a hybrid organization in America; serving as a kind of immigrant rights organization, a radical republican political organization and a direct constituent of the American labor movement. For example, most members of the Amalgamated Association in Homestead dual-carded in the land league’s Homestead branch.

Three major struggles created both the forms and processes which allowed for the construction of a homunculus of the workers’ state in Homestead—the strike of 1882, the lock-out of 1889 and the lock-out of 1892. In the course of these struggles new organizations would be formed. For example, the Knights of Labor organized skilled (dual carders) and unskilled metalworkers in the Homestead works during the strike of 1882. At the end of the lock-out of 1889, Eastern European immigrant laborers in the works formed the ‘First Hungarian Slovak Sick Benefit Society of St. Michael the Archangel’, a mutual benefit society and union for Slavic immigrants and a precursor to Lodge 26—the ‘First Catholic Slovak Union’.

Membership overlap, shared hardships and even vicious interethnic, interracial, xenophobic-nativist and other conflicts was a matter of combined evolution of the Homestead proletariat into a highly organized, politicized, experienced and disciplined social force.


Management closed the steelworks over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays for repairs, and demanded all metalworkers sign a yellow dog contract before they would be permitted to return to work when the repairs were complete. The ‘iron clad contract’ banned any worker from holding membership in the Amalgamated Association, prohibited workers from quitting in groups of 3 or more at one time, and prohibited quitting without 3 days’ notice. The men refused to sign, and so struck the Pittsburgh Bessemer Steel Works on January 1, 1881.

“At stake for both sides was the answer to a specific question: who would control the Homestead mill and moreover, the entire Bessemer industry, labor or management?” [6]

A member of management framed it this way at the time:

“It has become an issue between some workers and ourselves as to whether we shall be allowed to run our business or whether they will run it for us. We propose to run the business ourselves even if we have to call on the Secretary of War for assistance” [7]

Mill owners requested the state militia of Pennsylvania be sent to assist in maintaining order while they tried to restart production with scabs imported from Sweden, but were declined. However, they were obliged by the county sheriff, who sent armed deputies to assist the hired guards of the company in protecting the strikebreakers and in defending mill property.

Contemporary reports from the scene relayed images of Old West-type brawls and shootouts between scabs, deputy sheriffs and company guards and the strikers. Some scabs were beaten nearly to death, and volleys of gunfire were regularly exchanged. To even the odds, the strikers, who had the support of the majority of the town of Homestead (who were primarily steelworkers, glassworkers, coal miners and their families or small shopkeepers and professionals dependent on the workers for their economic wellbeing), were being sworn by the burgess (mayor) of Homestead as municipal policemen.

This is the first time the armed steelworkers of Homestead took over formal and official responsibilities from the elected government in service to their struggles with the mill owners and their agents. Unofficially, as soon as the strike began, the Amalgamated Association posted its own armed guards– ostensibly as pickets– and effectively sealed the town. In practice, this meant that only the people cleared by the union could enter Homestead for the duration of the strike. This was the first time that the armed steelworkers seized the town, and its success would lead the workers’ leaders to seal the town at least twice more, in 1889 and 1892.

While the support for the strike among the steelworkers, both Amalgamated men and unskilled laborers, was virtually unanimous, there were a few exceptions. When moral persuasion didn’t work, physical coercion was introduced in the form of organized force. Since the mill backed up to the banks of the Monongahela River, entry by water was a possibility.  A man named Robert Dickson, an unskilled laborer who wanted to work during the strike, attempted to persuade a ferryman to take him across the river toward the mill. He was refused, as the union had 65 pickets posted nearby who had strenuously warned the ferryman against granting passage to any would-be scabs. As soon as the conversation was over a picket named Thomas Gardner beat Robert Dickson with a blackjack for his attempt to cross the picket line.

Eventually, Dickson found a way to sneak into the mill, where his story led the company men to suggest he press charges against Gardner for assault:

“At [General Manager] Clark’s direction, he signed a complaint against Gardner, who was subsequently arrested. At the news, a crowd of strikers and their supporters besieged the arresting officers in a house near the steelworks. In the days following, the strikers extended the network of fear that they knew was necessary to win. Dickson, for example, returned to work in the mill, but he always carried a revolver. And his more famous brother, William, said that Homestead became so dangerous for the scabs that Clark was forced to feed and shelter many of them” [8]

After slowly overcoming the racist cloud over the formation of the Amalgamated Association, in 1881, 5 years after formation when black metalworkers were finally able to join the union and the smear campaign against skilled black iron boilers in the lock-out of 1874-75 had been absorbed as a lesson in solidarity, the strike of 1882 began showing a real and sincere effort at class unity and practical solidarity across all divisions:

“. . . leaders of the 1882 strike used the Irish National Land League to welcome immigrants who refused to scab into the house of honorable labor. To be sure, the Homestead steelworkers had nothing but contempt for those willing tools of Clark who had emigrated from Europe and who in Homestead stayed in a boarding house called, appropriately enough, Castle Garden. Yet John J. O’Donnell, president of the league in Homestead, ‘proudly’ wrote to the Irish World to report that during the strike, the [Homestead] branch enlisted ‘Germans, Dutchmen, Poles, Swedes, Scotchmen, Englishmen, Welshmen as well as Irishmen. . . to battle Capital for our rights here’” [9]

4 weeks into the strike, as Clark was restarting production under armed guard, he had the sheriff charge 14 Amalgamated men with assault and violation of the anti-conspiracy laws of Pennsylvania: some of whom were charged for sending ‘threatening’ letters to scabs. Jacob Gusky, a shopkeeper whose apparel store catered to union workers, bailed the men out of jail. A newspaper salesman named Isaac Bryan was assaulted for delivering papers to the scabs inside the mill, while William Killcrere, the boss machinist who operated a blacksmith shop within the mill, was ordered by the strikers to close his shop [10].

The workers’ relationship to the local petit-bourgeoisie was one of persuasion and coercion, based on the implied threat of violence (the ferryman, the machinist), on economic self-interest (the clothier) or on physical coercion (the salesman). In each instance, the workers dictated terms to the self-employed and the small shopkeepers of Homestead, who had no choice but to oblige lest they were prepared to engage in a contest of force against force with the armed workers. The petit-bourgeoisie was effectively neutralized as a social force that could act decisively in the service of capital against labor.

All through February the mill owners retaliated against the strikers by evicting steelworkers and their families from company houses, but this tactic was only effective to a point given the relatively high proportion of homeownership among the strikers. It was nonetheless one of the few ways that the company could respond to the offensive actions of the workers, who had not only ground production to slow to a crawl by hindering the scabs, but had effectively seized the town and were holding out, blow for blow, bullet for bullet, against all of the forces of repression summoned by the company and the state.

A structural evolution was forced on the steelworkers in the course of the strike. Divided between two lodges which organized different metalworking crafts in the mill, the strikers created a joint-lodge organization (that would in time become a joint-union organization), the Advisory Committee. It was a plant-wide committee with mandated delegates from each lodge, and, “with some assistance from the national officers, it was responsible for conducting negotiations, maintaining general discipline, and ensuring public safety. However, it remained at all times strictly accountable to the membership of the two lodges.” [11] The Advisory Committee was the highest organ of workers’ control in the struggle, and bestowed with a mandate of legitimacy by the organs of workers’ power (armed steelworkers, union guards, striker-policemen) and lower organs of workers’ control (mill committees), it served as an organ of de facto dual power in Homestead.

Violence had peaked in the first days of March, 2 months into the strike, when Clark issued a provocation: he announced that he would, at the end of the strike, only re-hire those union men he deemed fit to employ:

“Strikers attacked the tenements near the mill that housed the hated scabs. The fighting spread to the town itself, and there the strikers singled out and assaulted three men who had continued to work in the mill. One of them was John Northcraft, a foreman in the converting department. Some union members who served as policemen apparently were among the assailants, for Burgess W. S. Bullock stripped eight of them of their badges” [12]

Taking over official government duties, like those strikers who were sworn in as municipal policemen by the burgess of Homestead, was at the same time a subversion of these offices. The strikers weren’t upholding the right to private property or the other needs of capital which is the basis of such positions. Such formal offices merely sanctioned the control and power already established socially and physically by organized and organizing labor. Enough power was in the hands of the armed strikers and the workers’ delegates that they could contest control of the mill and the town against the armed company guards, scabs and deputy sheriffs. In this case, at least 8 strikers who were duly sworn policemen for the town of Homestead beat the hell out of a scabbing foreman under official cover. They were defending their interests, not capital’s, no matter what it said on that piece of tin on their chest.

“At daybreak on 2 March the fighting began anew when the scabs made their way from their tenements to the mill. The strikers had possession of the railroad tracks that stood between the tenements and the mill, and as the scabs approached across an open meadow, shots were exchanged. . .

Several scabs and deputies were wounded before the strikers succeeded in turning them away. . . ‘The sight of these officers seemed to have the effect of exciting rather than quieting. . . the strikers, or union men, kept in squads and carefully watched every newcomer or stranger that appeared in town. . . To them, the appearance of the deputy sheriffs was a declaration of war’” [13]

After a shift in the mill the scabs returned the way they had come, returning to the tenements under a larger escort of deputy sheriffs. One deputy, Richard Moran, was struck in the head by a stone—he then turned his revolver on the crowd of strikers and began firing, wounding two, “at which point the crowd descended on him with repeated shouts of ‘Kill the damned cop’. Moran, as well as another officer who had fired into the crowd, were beaten to unconsciousness. . .” [14].

Two days later on March 4th, a district meeting of the Amalgamated Association in Greater Pittsburgh voted to call a sympathy strike in all of the mills in the region, as the workers’ delegates and leaders recognized the struggle in Homestead as a struggle for the very existence of the union. It was at this point that the mill owners and Clark were compelled to recognize that they had completely lost the struggle. On March 14th, Clark officially folded—letting the union dictate the terms of their members’ return to work, and he quit his job as General Manager as a result.

“Within weeks, the [Amalgamated Association] had virtual possession of the mill.” [15]

The strike of 1882 was an unqualified victory for the steelworkers and the union, and had also created the forms and processes that would not only repeat in future struggles, but established a new baseline from which the struggle would escalate further. The unskilled laborers, including the multiethnic immigrant populations, developed their own organizations in the labor movement through Knights of Labor local assembly 1785 and the Homestead branch of the Irish National Land League. It was an experience from which the steelworkers, their union and their allies in the town and the whole Pittsburgh region would remember for nearly a generation of struggle with the iron and steel capitalists and the state’s forces of repression.

The proletariat of Homestead, drawing on their experiences during the completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in America in the Civil War, had characterized their struggles as a continuation of the struggle for emancipation: the movement begun with the abolition of chattel slavery in the South turning into the abolition of wage slavery in the North.

Frank Gessner, an ex-glassworker and unskilled laborer in the Homestead works who organized the first Knights of Labor local assembly in the mill, drew this parallel clearly in an article for the National Labor Tribune after the lock-out of 1874-75:

“The real question. . . is whether the [steelworks] is to be operated by the honest skilled labor of the Amalgamated Association, or whether it is to take its place as a ‘scab’ works, to be operated by those who will severally sign away their rights, and become as much the property of the company as ever were the Negroes on the tobacco plantations of Virginia or the cotton fields of Louisiana?” [16]

This politicization was evident in the strong support of Greater Pittsburgh’s proletariat, and specifically the metalworkers, glassworkers and coal miners, for the emerging Greenback-Labor Party (GLP), the first attempt at a truly nationwide mass labor party in the United States. It was a farmer-labor party dominated by the demands of the rural petit-bourgeoisie who were reluctant to grant any space in the party platform for urban workers (seeing them only as a potential vote-getting constituency). And yet, at the local level, the Allegheny County GLP became a potential locus for a third-party with a legitimate chance in the elections of the state of Pennsylvania. The GLP and later the United Labor Party consistently showed there was a determined and significant fraction of the working-class who were ready and eager to demonstrate their political independence from the capitalist political parties. Many of the same organic and formal leaders of the various labor organizations in the Pittsburgh region who organized and led the most significant concerted actions of the time were GLP cadre. At the lowest local level, in the town of Homestead, the workers began electing their own to the city council and eventually captured the office of burgess for many years.

Three months after the victory in the strike in March 1882, a labor parade was organized by the labor movement of Greater Pittsburgh in June. District Assembly 3 of the Knights of Labor, the Amalgamated Association and other trade unions were sponsors of the event. 30,000 workers marched while 100,000 observed the parade. It was a highly disciplined event, in contrast to the spontaneous class uprising of 1877 (which came to be known in Pittsburgh as the ‘Roundhouse Riot’). Homestead steelworkers, glassworkers and coal miners marched together under banners of the Amalgamated Association and Knights of Labor.

“It was an irrefutable symbol, an outward sign, of what was going on within the labor movement: ironworkers and glassworkers, miners and molders, trade unionists and Knights, skilled and less skilled, white and black, had banded together in a ‘disciplined, orderly and numerous’ manner so that they might ‘preserve the republic intact’. Indeed, only organized labor could meet this monumental task of preserving the republic because, as the marchers had made explicit, labor itself constituted the very fabric of civil society” [17]

In their words and actions, the organized working-class of Pittsburgh was implicitly asserting the class programme of the proletariat for the abolition of classes, the socialist principle of, “he who does not work shall not eat.” The proletarianization of humanity through the generalization of the condition of wage labor is the forcible levelling of the capitalists while simultaneously elevating the material conditions, the quality of life, of all working and oppressed peoples. Labor as the foundation of society is a vision inherent to the working-class and only articulated openly by the socialist movement.

The relative maturity of the organized workers of Homestead can be seen here in 1882. It was achieved through the experiences in Greater Pittsburgh of the formation of the first metalworkers’ local unions, the Panic of 1857, the formation of national and International metalworkers’ unions like the Sons of Vulcan, the civil war and the abolition of slavery, the lock-out of 1866-67, the Panic of 1873 and the Long Depression, the lock-out of 1874-75, the formation of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, the fight against white chauvinism within the union, the movement toward practical class unity between skilled and unskilled and citizen and immigrant workers, the strike of 1882, the organization of the unskilled and immigrant workers and the emergence of political independence for the working-class. The parade of June 1882 was the culmination of this accumulation of experience of the class struggle—or put another way, this history of the working-class.

While the Knights of Labor was turning on the trade unionists and trade unions in the 1880’s (including the Amalgamated Association, for which it chartered a dual union: National Trade Assembly 217), igniting a fratricidal war of attrition that it would eventually lose with the American Federation of Labor, the relations within Homestead remained firm between trade unionists and Knights. Over time and after Andrew Carnegie took over the Homestead works, the mills would be greatly expanded, and in tandem so too were the Amalgamated Association and Knights of Labor. By the end of the decade, there were 8 Amalgamated lodges in the works, which opened membership to both skilled and unskilled laborers and counted approximately 1/3 of the workforce as members, while the Knights too expanded their membership base and took in a substantial number of the remaining workers. “Moreover, virtually every glassworker in Homestead belonged to the Knights or to the American Flint Glass Workers Union, and workers in the building trades affiliated with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. In effect, every workingman in Homestead was a union man.” [18]

As the rest of the American labor movement was in a state of transition with the rise of the American Federation of Labor, the decline of the Knights of Labor and a political realignment of the working-class, the proletariat of Homestead continued to make substantial progress in all spheres and in doing so, were increasingly isolated within this bastion of consolidated and defended material gains and layered organization. The mill owners returned to compete with the union for control of the works and by extension control of the town in another contest of force.


Andrew Carnegie bought the Homestead works in 1883. For the next 5 years there was a constant expansion of the works, utilizing the latest technology and techniques in the production of iron and steel. The number of workers in the mill had risen to more than 2500, and the Amalgamated Association and Knights of Labor grew in tandem. By 1889 the Amalgamated Association had grown from 2 lodges to 8 lodges and over 800 members.

In May 1889, Carnegie attempted to oust the unions and roll back the material gains extracted by the steelworkers over the preceding 9 years. His subordinates were instructed to inform the workers that wages were to be cut by approximately 25%, the working day would be lengthened to 12 hours and all workers were being let go—and that they could only regain their job if they signed a yellow dog contract (which excluded trade union membership as a condition of employment). Negotiations between the unions and the company carried on until June, when virtually every worker refused to sign the new ‘iron clad’ contracts, and so were locked-out. This time, there was an immediate threat of Pinkerton gunmen descending on Homestead:

“The events in Braddock had taught that Carnegie would willingly. . . hire new men and protect them with Pinkertons. The steelworkers of Homestead therefore decided to move just as they had in 1882; they took possession of the town and sealed it off. Directed by the paramilitary Advisory Committee of men chosen from each AAISW lodge, armed steelworkers guarded all approaches to the town, allowing no one to enter unless proof was furnished that he was not a blacksheep” [19]

Management closed the mill for repairs, just as they had in earlier strikes and lock-outs, from July 1st through July 10th. That was the day that 100 Pinkerton gunmen arrived by rail in Pittsburgh and the first train carrying scabs was dispatched to Homestead. For reasons that remain unclear, the Pinkertons did not accompany the scabs to Homestead.

At the rail station in town, 2000 workers met the train and persuaded the men not to disembark. 3 scabs and a job shark were ferociously beaten when they tried to make their way through the crowd toward the works, though the workers allowed the sheriff to move about unmolested. The sheriff departed when the scabs were unable (or unwilling) to disembark and enter the works.

Two days later on July 12, the county sheriff returned with 125 deputies to keep strikers from occupying the steelworks or picketing on company property. This time, 3000 workers met the sheriff and his posse of deputies and refused to let them disembark. After a tense standoff, deputy sheriffs began taking off their badges, guns and uniforms and, one after the other, agreed to go home.

“The strikers at Carnegie’s steel plant have. . . full charge of the town. . . and none dare to interfere” [20]

Negotiations between the Amalgamated Association and the company proceeded in the background of these events. With the departure of the sheriff and the escalating level of control exercised by the workers, Carnegie relented and negotiated a 3-year, 58 page collective bargaining agreement which de facto recognized the Amalgamated Association as the representative of all workers in the mills.

However, the deal was a compromise. A majority of workers had their wages cut. Despite vigorously opposing such cuts, the union’s members voted to accept the deal in the interest of sacrificing the interests of the minority for the needs of the majority. But the unions remained firmly entrenched in the steelworks. Carnegie had been defeated within the steelworks, and in the town of Homestead:

“One year later, the town’s government, too, would lie squarely in the hands of the union, with John McLuckie, a veteran AAISW man and leader in the 1889 lockout, acclaimed burgess” [21]

The compromise of 1889 had proven a victory for the workers. For the next 3 years the organized workers of Homestead enjoyed complete economic and political dominance. Only extraordinary violence could dislodge the organs of workers’ control/power from both the town and the steelworks, and it came in 1892.


“The fight between centralized capital and organized labor may as well be pushed to the finish here at Homestead, and unless I am badly mistaken, it will be fought out here”—A Homestead steelworker, July 6, 1892 [22]

At the end of the 3-year collective bargaining agreement, Carnegie and his agents decided to pursue bad faith bargaining and make secret arrangements with the objective of busting the union with force. The workers were effectively locked-out at the end of June. On the night of July 5, 1892, 300 Pinkerton gunmen arrived in Bellevue, Pennsylvania. Based on earlier attempts by armed guards, scabs and deputy sheriffs to enter the town by land and rail, it was decided to launch an amphibious landing to re-take the works and mill properties. The Pinkertons boarded two barges which were tugged along the Monongahela toward the works. They were noticed by the workers’ sophisticated network of lookouts, which sent word back to Homestead that hundreds of gunmen were en route. Workers and residents believed that one of the 2 barges being tugged to Homestead carried scabs, and the other company gunmen. They were wrong; both carried heavily armed Pinkertons.

As word reached the Amalgamated Association and diffused among the town’s residents, the dynamic of mass action developed. The decision to set up a military defense of the picket line was largely spontaneous, and enveloped not just the steelworkers and their families but the entire proletariat of Homestead. The workers warned each other, armed themselves and took up fortified positions along the rear of the steelworks on the hill overlooking the wharf at the rear of the works on the banks of the Monongahela. A second group of armed workers occupied the mills. In terms of conventional warfare, the workers held the high ground and so had a strategic advantage: the Pinkertons would have to establish a beachhead, fight uphill against fortified positions and then re-take the steelworks by force.

It was 4:00am when the barges approached the wharf. Shots fired in anger from the riverbank at the barges were sporadic at first. More armed workers took up positions on both Pmickey bridge and the opposite shore of the Monongahela, surrounding the Pinkertons on 3 sides. In the initial volleys of gunfire when the Pinkertons first tried to disembark and retake the steelworks, casualties were taken on both sides.

Union men were expropriating firearms and ammunition all over town since the Advisory Committee ordered the stockpiling weapons in the union hall, which they distributed to any and all volunteers willing to fight and kill the Pinkertons. McLuckie, the de facto leader of the Advisory Committee, used his position as burgess of Homestead to officially request that all residents help him preserve the peace—by killing all of the Pinkertons. He also decreed that all bars would be closed for the duration of the struggle.

Within 2 hours of the first skirmish, some workers boarded small boats and launched sorties against the barges; others expropriated two 20lbs cannons from the local Grand Army of the Republic post and fired on the barges from the shoreline opposite the steelworks. Inaccurate shelling caused friendly fire casualties on the workers’ side and so the shelling was halted.

In another 2 hours, around 8:00am, the Pinkertons made a second attempt to launch an uphill assault. They again failed and the morale of the gunmen plummeted. Only about a quarter of the 300 Pinkertons were veteran agents experienced in the ways and means of breaking strikes with bayonets and bullets. A significant number of the rest, who had signed up for an unknown job with the Pinkerton Detective Agency, refused to fight and hid under their bunks or had to be physically prevented from jumping into the river.

Gunfire was sporadic for the next few hours. The tugboat that had brought the barges to Homestead returned in an attempt to tow them away; but it was driven off by heavy rifle fire from the workers. As the tugboat left, any chance of escape for the Pinkertons went with it. They tried to raise a white flag of surrender, which was torn to shreds by gunfire from the shore.

The sheriff and his deputies entered Homestead and posted leaflets in town to the effect that they intended to return control of the mill to its owners, and advised the workers to return to their homes. These leaflets were all torn down and the sheriff and his deputies were promptly escorted out of town by the armed steelworkers:

“It was this undertaking that later would earn the Advisory Committee members the charge of treason” [23]

By the late afternoon of July 6, approximately 5000 steelworkers from nearby mills in Pittsburgh, Braddock and Duquesne (most armed) arrived after hearing the news out of Homestead. Pinkertons had been used by Carnegie to bust the Amalgamated Association in Braddock just a few years earlier in 1888, and by this point the only Bessemer steelworks still controlled by the union was in Homestead. It was perceived and treated as a continuation of the struggle that Pittsburgh metalworkers had been engaged in for more than a generation.

A reporter on the scene noted that, “the workers’ military organization rivaled that of the best Union regiments in the Civil War, [and that] the men were then considering every ‘possible scheme for the annihilation and destruction of the Pinkertons’” [24]

Aside from the barrage of rifle and cannon fire, the workers attempted to burn the barges (with the gunmen inside) in a variety of ways: sending oil-soaked and flaming boats and timbers toward them on the water; a flaming railcar loaded with oil barrels was launched down the track that ran from the works to the wharf; an oil slick was deployed around the barges and set aflame; lit sticks of dynamite were thrown from smaller boats on and near the barges. But none of these schemes did more than cause superficial damage and torment the agents within.

At a mass meeting led by the national leaders of the Amalgamated Association and the Homestead Advisory Committee, the workers debated their terms for ending the conflict. The spontaneous objective from the beginning had been to kill all of the Pinkertons before the state militia could be mobilized and deployed to the town. Now that it was clear the workers had won the battle, the workers’ delegates and elected leaders attempted to mediate a resolution. This general assembly decided that the Pinkertons would be permitted to surrender to and be disarmed by the steelworkers, but they would be held under armed guard and then transferred to the custody of the sheriff under the condition that they be arrested for murder. Homestead’s proletariat wanted justice for the workers shot dead by Pinkerton bullets.

The Advisory Committee determined the Homestead opera house would serve as a jail for the gunmen. Armed steelworkers guarded their prisoners and eventually transferred them to the sheriff, who not only made no arrests of Pinkerton gunmen, but was party to a deal to load them onto special railcars that spirited them away to safety. Instead, on July 12th, 6,000 troops of the state militia occupied the town, took over the steelworks and held it for the purpose of allowing the owners’ staff and imported scabs to re-enter and re-start production.

Reaction soon followed, and with it treason, riot and murder indictments for the Advisory Committee, dismantling of Homestead’s labor organizations and the blacklisting of their members.

Construction of a Homunculus of the Workers’ State in Homestead

The absolute limit of the proletarian class consciousness derived from the spontaneous class struggle, in every sphere (economic, political and social) or, in other words, the absolute limit of trade union consciousness is evident in the 12 year period begun with the opening of the Pittsburgh Bessemer Steel Works in Homestead in 1880 and closed with the reaction which triumphed at the end of July 1892. The homunculus of the workers’ state is the developmental peak of the form of proletarian class consciousness derivative of the spontaneous class struggle—action preceding consciousness.

Both the bourgeoisie and the agents of the capitalist state clearly understood the implications of Homestead after the lock-out of 1892, formally charging the workers’ formal and informal leaders with treason, riot and murder:

“This will be the first case of treason ever tried in the State of Pennsylvania. In fact, there was never anything exactly similar. The only case coming near it was the proceedings growing out of the French Commune. This case will attract as much, if not more interest, than did the famous trial of Aaron Burr. We are bringing these proceedings to see whether the laws of Pennsylvania or the edicts of the Homestead Advisory Committee are to rule this Commonwealth. The committee took the law in their own hands, ignoring the government of the state. We think this constitutes treason” [25]

Just like the relationship of the National Guard to the Paris Commune and the Red Guards to the Petrograd Soviet, the armed workers and union defense guards were both a product of the struggle of the Homestead Advisory Committee and the precondition for its existence [26].

Regrouped politically in the Irish National Land League and Greenback-Labor Party, economically in the Amalgamated Association, the Knights of Labor and mutual benefit societies, the social development of each fraction and segment of the Homestead proletariat (white and black, citizen and immigrant, skilled and unskilled, Catholic and Protestant, etc.) was propelled by a growing-over. Dual-carding in each other’s organizations and regular mass meetings—both formal and informal—allowed the diverse cross-sections of the local working-class to live together, work together, vote together, struggle together, decide together, bleed together and kill together.

Dual power emerged in Homestead as a consequence of the scale of the workers’ resistance to and demands of capital constructing a center of resistance which was capable of contesting power on the local level. Local professionals and small shopkeepers were compelled to assist the Homestead proletariat in its class struggles, either through the velvet glove of persuasion or the mailed fist of coercion, while the official government could acquiesce to let the unions settle their grievances with the mill owners without interference or find itself stripped of any real authority by the armed workers.

Control is the basis for the forms engendered by the practice, substance and structure of trade unionism, manifestations of organized and organizing labor, to reach the most acute phase of the class struggle and produce the raw materials necessary to construct a workers state. American labor’s heritage of class violence to secure and defend wage rates and collective bargaining rights against an abnormally ferocious domestic capital painfully demonstrates that the question of force is reached in the course of daily class struggles, requiring neither radicalization nor politicization as prerequisites. Worker’s power is nothing but organized force made in relation or reference to worker’s (direct/indirect) control—of private property, the means of production and distribution, the fruits of labor. The Amalgamated men at Homestead (1892) were compelled to seize and hold the steel works with rifles to defend their working and living conditions, via defending the integrity– the social and physical fact– of their unions’ existence, from Frick and the Pinkertons.

In the development of the working-class of Homestead, their accumulation of experience was also an uninterrupted but incremental accumulation of control and power—until 1892. The struggle of the trade unions, the other labor organizations and armed workers for control of the steelworks and the town was an indirect struggle for state power. Control of the town was placed on the agenda as a matter of trade union necessity. The town government (burgess and city council) and the middle classes (shopkeepers, professionals) had to be neutralized to effectively resist the encroachments of the mill owners or press demands which encroached upon the mill owners.

But, at the moment when organized and organizing labor’s acute spontaneous class struggles confront the forces of repression of the capitalist state as a matter of trade union necessity, they are unable to openly and directly contest state power as a matter of class struggle necessity. It was in 1919 during the national coal strike that John L. Lewis, the then new International president of the United Mine Workers of America, articulated this limit of trade union consciousness when he ordered the miners back to work with the words, “you can’t fight your Uncle Sam,” after President Wilson summoned Federal courts and troops to suppress them with force.

Again and again, even in the midst of the most barbaric violence, the working-class will consistently and quite often enthusiastically prostrate itself before the forces of the capitalist state sent to repress them. At the Battle of Blair Mountain, when the brand new Army Air Corps dropped conventional and chemical munitions on the coal miners’ lines and Federal troops moved in to quell the uprising with bayonets, the West Virginia coal miners fraternized in the most effusive manner, even though they controlled 400 square miles of territory; they just disarmed and went home. During the Seattle General Strike, the radical workers’ assemblies demanded a continuation of the strike, while their elected delegates on the General Strike Committee urged its termination. As delegates were recalled and replaced, the responsibility quickly sobered the militant workers once they received a mandate—and as this process continued to repeat itself, it was decided to end the strike before the demands had been won, even though the entire economic life of the city was in the hands of the workers’ strike committee.

The Homestead Advisory Committee, the various labor organizations, the armed workers and union defense guards had enough power to rout a heavily armed contingent of professional mercenaries and enough control to maintain their authority over the town and the steelworks. After the Pinkertons had been whisked away by rail, the Advisory Committee jubilantly greeted the Pennsylvania militiamen who had been dispatched to wrest control of the steelworks and the town away from them. Just a week earlier, the workers’ leaders directed and presided over a drama where undisguised class violence and friendly fire went hand in hand as they picked a fight with the whole bourgeoisie (which most certainly believes that An Injury To One Is An Injury To All) and thus put Nietzsche’s advice into practice: they had built their city under Vesuvius. But a week later, they were enthusiastically groveling to the state militia and abdicated from the contest for workers’ control over the town and the steelworks backed by workers’ power. And with their abdication, the chain of accumulated dead class struggles and maturation of consciousness over the preceding 12 years in Homestead and the preceding 50 years in the Pittsburgh iron and steel mills was broken for a full generation.

Dual power is the highest stage of the practice of trade unionism; mass action is the highest stage of the substance of trade unionism; and the homunculus of the workers’ state, that hollow imitation of the dictatorship of the proletariat, is the highest stage of the structure of trade unionism– all the highest stages capable of being produced by labor’s spontaneous class struggles and by the form of proletarian class consciousness derived therefrom: action preceding consciousness. The struggles, the forms and processes and the lived experience of the Homestead proletariat affirms Marx’s observation that, “. . . the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat. . .”

Only revolutionary intervention and revolutionary organization– socialist practice and the workers’ party– can transubstantiate trade union necessity into class struggle necessity, mass action into proletarian revolution, and the organs of workers’ control/power into the raw materials for the construction of a workers’ state, and, in so doing, inaugurate the dictatorship of the proletariat.

“The basic question of every revolution is that of state power. Unless this question is understood, there can be no intelligent participation in the revolution, not to speak of guidance of the revolution” – Lenin, The Dual Power (1917)


[1] F. Engels, “A Fair Day’s Wages for a Fair Day’s Work”, The Labour Standard #1 May 7, 1881

[2] Paul Krause, “The Battle for Homestead 1880-1892: Politics, Culture and Steel,” Pittsburgh Series in Social and Labor History, University of Pittsburgh Press (1992), p. 107

[3] Karl Marx, Results of the Immediate Process of Production, reprinted in the Penguin Classics edition of Capital vol. I, p. 1068.

[4] Krause, p. 108

[5] William Z. Foster, “The Railroaders’ Next Step,” The Labor Herald Pamphlets #1 (1921)

[6] Krause, p. 178

[7] Ibid, p. 178

[8] Ibid, p. 184

[9] Ibid, p. 182

[10] Ibid, p. 186, 188

[11] Ibid, p. 186

[12] Ibid, p. 187

[13] Ibid, p. 188

[14] Ibid, p. 188

[15] Ibid, p. 180

[16] Ibid, p. 181

[17] Ibid, p. 198-199

[18] Ibid, p. 210

[19] Ibid, p. 247

[20] Ibid, p. 248

[21] Ibid, p. 250

[22] Ibid, p. 12

[23] Ibid, p. 26

[24] Ibid, p. 31

[25] Ibid, p. 271

[26] “For the armed peasants and workers as the embodiment of state power are simultaneously the products of the struggle of the soviets and the precondition for their existence.”— Georg Lukasc, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought (1924)