PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Thursday marks one of the bloodiest encounters in American labor history, the Battle of Homestead.
It’s been 125-years since Pinkerton guards armed with Winchester rifles came down the Monongahela river on barges, to Homestead, to break the will of the steelworkers there.
Thursday night academy award winning actor Mark Rylance gave a special performance to mark the occasion at the Homestead Carnegie Library.
Rylance co-wrote a play about the event and it’s aftermath, saying the Battle of Homestead is not only a great drama of its time, but one that has special significance in our lives today.
“It was very early in the morning and they came a little bit further down the river to a place call the pump house, 300 of them,” Rylance said.
No one knows who fired first, but at the pump house, the Pinkerton exchanged shots with thousands of workers, and in the end, seven workers and three Pinkerton were left dead — hundreds of others injured.
For Mark Rylance — the renowned stage actor and academy award winner — it’s the stuff of great drama.
“Oh yes, enormous drama. In fact the difficulty for me is trying to contain and think what is the essential drama, what is the essential question? What would Shakespeare do?”
For years now, Rylance and co-author Peter Reder have been working on a play about the battle and the two great forces of labor and management on a collision course.
In a performance at the Homestead Carnegie library, Rylance will be portraying Henry Clay Frick — who locked out the workers and built a wall around the mill.
Frick and Andrew Carnegie were modernizing the mill — expanding production with less workers through new technology, but it was Frick who sent in the Pinkertons to cement his plans and break the union.
“He definitely could have made some choices that would have been softer. That wouldn’t have required such violence. I don’t think Mr. Carnegie wanted to be that violent, that direct. He was kind of an artist of managers. He admired this incredible efficient science of management that was born at that time,” Rylance said.
Two weeks later Frick would survive an assassination attempt after being shot in his downtown office by the anarchist Alexander Berkman — sympathy for the workers diminished, the governor sent in the state militia and the union was broken.
But rather than dusty, old history, Rylance says the battle was over machines replacing labor — something that resonates today as automation, driverless cars and robots may threaten the livelihood of workers.
“It’s hard when you look at the black and white photographs of the mills in the 1890s to think that this is cutting edge technology. What are they going to do with all those people?”
The battle and the aftermath were the great drama of its times, but that history is just as vital today as the thing people fought and died for back then are still being fought over today.