I was wary of the History Channel's new documentary about the 1892 Homestead Steel strike. After all, the cable network's owner is a joint venture of the Hearst publishing chain, Disney-owned ABC and General Electric's NBC. These aren't folks I expect to see holding aloft solidarity's flag.
But the documentary is narrated by West Wing star Martin Sheen ... and upon hearing the voice of the President Liberals Dream About, you just know all will be well.
The story of the Homestead strike is familiar, or should be. With Henry Clay Frick as the bad cop, steelmaster Andrew Carnegie sought to oust the union from his recently acquired Homestead Works. In July 1892, Frick locked the union out, then sent two barges of armed Pinkerton "detectives" to guard the mill so scabs could tend its furnaces. The locals met the barges with gunfire, taking the Pinkertons prisoner. The uprising drew international media attention, but was soon crushed with the aid of the state militia. Labor leaders were prosecuted, harassed, ruined. Unions were barred from the steel industry for the next 40 years.
With a script penned by Jack Youngelson, director/producer Rory Kennedy doesn't just lay this history bare; she flays the skin from the industrialist's rotting bones. The documentary notes the growing disparities between rich and poor at the time, and highlights dreary working and living conditions. (Arguably, it makes too much of these: Local labor historian Charlie McCollester says that before the strike, Homestead was a worker's paradise compared to other company towns. Frick's machinations are what turned it into a Hobbesian nightmare.)
The documentary's half-dozen academics side with the workers, and even Frick's descendent, Martha Frick Sanger, doesn't sound terribly sympathetic to her great-grandfather's cause. By the end of the documentary's 45 minutes, I found myself feeling sorry for Carnegie. Almost.
Sadly, while the film was made with help from the local Steel Industry Heritage Corporation, little of it was shot here. (Having outsourced its steel jobs and replaced them with shopping, Homestead must outsource much of its heritage too.) The film is also plagued by modern film re-enactments, the curse of many History Channel productions. Still, by shooting the "historic" footage on grainy Super-8 film, Kennedy kept it from looking too much like a movie in social-studies class. She also breathes new life into old photos: Computer effects turn archival photographs into 3-D dioramas, which literally draw the viewer inside Homestead's mills and working-class ghettos.
Indeed, Kennedy and Youngelson's most impressive accomplishment is keeping the material fresh, even for those who've heard it before. What was at stake in Homestead wasn't just wages, the film argues: It was the idea that workers should have an equity stake in, and be consulted about, their employer's decisions. As one of the documentary's talking heads puts it, the workers believed "you owned your job" and that "a right to it seemed fundamental."
Such ideas are "unfathomable to us today," he adds. And that, as this forceful, well-made documentary concludes, may be the measure of what we lost in 1892.