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The Gospel of Organizing

Unionizing in the long shadow of the Gilded Age

The marble stairs in the main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh are worn from use near the handrails, so that as you ascend, your feet land in the curved depressions created by the collective weight of over one hundred years of patrons. When looking up from the bottom of a flight, the effect is slightly dizzying, the steps appearing like a stack of little waves. At the top, you enter a columned hall, where the main circulation desk is stationed, front and center, as it tends to be in Carnegie-built libraries. Today, it’s staffed by a single library worker, and there is a short line of people waiting to talk to her. It’s a bright winter day, and sun streams through the building’s domed windows, filling the library with light, as they were designed by Andrew Carnegie’s own specifications to do.

It is the middle of December 2021, and last week, on the seventh, approximately three hundred workers at this library and at eighteen other Carnegie branches across Pittsburgh reached a tentative agreement on their first union contract. The workers won the right to bargain this agreement after a majority of them voted to join the United Steelworkers, an offshoot of a union that, 130 years earlier, was nearly crushed by Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, chairman and chief executive of Carnegie Steel. The United Steelworkers now reaches far beyond the dwindling American steel industry and welcomes most of its new members from sectors like higher ed, health care, tech, and cultural institutions.

Carnegie spent a good chunk of his steel fortune gifting libraries like this one to communities across the United States and abroad. The bright, vaulted building in Pittsburgh, as well as the Carnegie museums and wide-open urban greenspaces like Frick Park (bequeathed by Henry Clay himself), were a factor in why my family recently chose to move here. They are part of what makes Pittsburgh such a livable city, or at least the kind of place we were hoping to live. Today, I’m at the library early for a union meeting—I’m an organizer, though not for the Steelworkers: I work for Workers United, an offshoot of the ILGWU, most recently known for its association with the uprising of Starbucks workers. I’ve settled in at a table in a high-ceilinged reading room, and I’m listening to a recording of Carnegie himself reading from his essay, “The Gospel of Wealth,” which was published in the June 1889 issue of North American Review (originally just titled “Wealth”).

This sector, which was in part founded and sustained by Gilded Age wealth, is newly alight with organizing momentum.

Carnegie’s voice is pompous and theatrical, as if he is calling out to a large audience from a great distance. The internet is spotty, so the track cuts in and out, and I go to the front desk to ask if there is a better place to sit for the sake of reception. The library worker is helping an elderly patron, and perhaps because they are both masked, or perhaps because he is also armored with layers of outerwear including a thick scarf wrapped around a coat hood, they are having a hard time communicating. She leans over the desk and carefully explains how to log on to the public computers and then tells the patron she’ll be over shortly to help him set up an email account.

This exchange is familiar to me—I’m married to a librarian who has worked in “public interfacing roles” at four different libraries across the country. I know that librarians have, by hook and crook, picked up the frayed threads of the fabric of this country’s safety net and are doing their best to weave it back together with the few and forever decreasing resources at their disposal. Library collections have shifted from books and other media to include things humans need to navigate the modern world: cell phones, calling cards, wifi hotspots, clothing for job interviews, and bicycles to get them there on time, as well as items needed for basic survival: winter coats, canned foods, kitchen tools, a warm and safe place to sit. Librarians are trained in engaging people who have any number of neuro- and emotional divergences, disabilities, and disorders. They are often community leaders in programming around literacy, parenting, citizenship, and summer or after-school education. They are first points of contact for unsheltered members of the communities they serve. In some places, librarians are relied upon to staff Covid testing sites and to train in the emergency use of Narcan.

There is about a 40 percent chance the person staffing this desk is a part-time worker. If so, she likely has no paid time off, no set schedule, no medical benefits. (Thankfully, the new union agreement will go a long way toward making the job more sustainable, but not until it’s ratified by a majority of the library’s workers and then goes into effect.) There is a good chance she was among the 60 percent of staff system-wide who voted to form a union and to become a member of the United Steelworkers. She and her coworkers are part of a growing movement of arts and culture workers forming unions because the precarity of these jobs—along with the pressure and sometimes danger of being on the front line of the suffering caused by the absence of social programs in this country—has pushed them to demand stability, better pay and benefits, a voice at work. From freelancers and visual artists to museum workers and librarians, this sector, which was in part founded and sustained by Gilded Age wealth, is newly alight with organizing momentum.

I’m listening to “The Gospel of Wealth” in this space purposely; I thought it might be amusing to hear the old man blather on about charity as a form of social waste while sitting inside a shrine to his idea of the morality of wealth, where workers now perform exactly the kinds of charitable services he decried.

In August 2019, when the library workers had just won their vote to unionize—the step of the organizing process that required their employer to come to the bargaining table to negotiate with them—I was brand new to Pittsburgh, though I knew enough of its labor history to view the organizing win as a kind of poetic justice. I gleefully texted with a friend who had worked on the campaign, exchanging our visions of Andrew Carnegie and probably Henry Clay Frick, too, that old asshole, rolling over in their graves, since they had become two of the wealthiest people in U.S. history by busting unions so they could keep forcing people to work twelve hour shifts for as little money as they felt like paying. It seemed fitting, a small pleasing irony, that these many decades later, the ranks of the Steelworkers would grow by over three hundred members, in the heart of Pittsburgh, Carnegie’s homefield, at his own institutions, in one of the only bright spots on an otherwise dim landscape of organizing for the union that year. But while it’s true the victory was an important one, and while I believe in both poetry and justice as restorative, transformative powers, I do not believe that what we mean by poetic justice can ever undo the harm enacted by Carnegie or Frick or any of the other murderously greedy robber barons of the Gilded Age. Still it’s pretty sweet.

After delighting with my friend over the victory, I thought about the Johnstown Flood, which I had only recently learned about. I’m not a real yinzer—if I were, I would likely have studied the event in high school or soaked it up earlier as one does with the stories important to the places we are from. I thought about Johnstown because “Wealth” was published shortly after Frick and Carnegie and a group of their rich industrialist friends became responsible for flooding it: a dam, which they had lowered and weakened to serve their convenience and recreational desires, finally gave way.

Aftermath of the Johnstown Flood. | Library of Congress

A thirty-five-foot wall of water, which no longer looked like water because it was already carrying and churning and spilling forth the ruined remains of several other communities, slammed, at forty miles an hour, with a flow rate greater than that of Niagara Falls, into Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on May 31, 1889 at 4:07 p.m. The flood, its sheer size, is difficult to visualize. The Johnstown Area Heritage Association understands this difficulty, so it provides a list of “descriptive facts” as “a quick way to convey the enormity of the event”: The water killed 2,209 people, including ninety-nine whole families. More than seven hundred fifty bodies could not be identified. Some bodies were found as far away as Cincinnati, nearly five hundred miles downstream. A seven-arch stone bridge, on the edge of the small city’s downtown, trapped a pile of debris that quickly grew and within minutes covered thirty acres. The debris caught fire and burned for three days. Some people who survived the wall of water by floating on debris died in the fire.

The water was unleashed when the South Fork Dam, fourteen miles upriver, failed. Before it failed, the dam held back twenty million tons of water in the form of Lake Conemaugh, which, along with its surrounding acreage, was owned by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a secretive group cofounded by Frick that included other wealthy businessmen like Carnegie, as well as lawmakers, bankers, and corporate lawyers. The Club stocked the lake with expensive game fish, and then to keep the fish from escaping, it installed screens over the lake’s spillways, which, over time, were clogged with leaves and not cleared. In abhorrence of the small inconvenience of having to take turns crossing the dam in their carriages, the Club’s members lowered it by several feet to make way for a two-lane road. Even if you didn’t know the story already, you could perhaps see where this would lead.

Daniel Morrell, the general manager of Johnstown’s iron mills, saw it, but no one listened. Johnstown was a steel town, but not a Carnegie Steel town. Its mills were owned by Cambria Iron, which had industrial sites stretching about a dozen miles down the Conemaugh River, where thousands of workers used cutting-edge technology and manufactured enough metal to break the U.S. dependence on Britain for the construction of its railways. Morrell was concerned about the changes to the dam upstream, so he bought a membership in the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and hired engineers to inspect it. With their findings, he campaigned for basic maintenance and repairs, even offering on behalf of Cambria Steel to help pay for them. But the Club’s founders, including Frick, ignored him.

After the dam broke, the North American Review released its June issue containing “Wealth,” which was published alongside essays titled, “Unhappy Marriages in Fiction,” and “The Religious Value of Enthusiasm,” and “The Last Days of the Steam-Engine.” I don’t know how long it took for the magazine to reach the hands of its subscribers, but I imagine some were reading these words as the debris at the stone bridge burned: “The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship.”

In the essay’s first paragraph, Carnegie writes,

When visiting the Sioux, I was led to the wigwam of the chief. It was just like the others in external appearance, and even within the difference was trifling between it and those of the poorest of his braves. The contrast between the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the laborer with us today measures the change which has come with civilization.

In the Johnston flood, sixteen hundred homes were destroyed, the vast majority of them belonging to Cambria steelworkers. After deciding to issue no public statement, The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club made a single contribution to the relief effort: a thousand blankets, not even one per home destroyed. (About half its members made individual donations.)

“This change, however, is not to be deplored, but welcomed as highly beneficial,” Carnegie continues. “It is well, nay, essential for the progress of the race, that the houses of some should be homes for all that is highest and best in literature and the arts, and for all the refinements of civilization, rather than that none should be so. Much better this great irregularity than universal squalor.”

Throughout the essay, he insists that the concentration of wealth into the hands of a few is inevitable, unworthy even of criticism, that economic disparity is, in fact, good—a sign of progress, the only way the finer things humans have produced could ever have come to be. On this rhetorical foundation, he builds to his true thesis that the wealthy alone are capable of properly redistributing the wealth they glean off the backs of laborers. That he, a shining example of the benevolent tycoon, is uniquely wise to the needs of the public, so much so that he, along with the few other beneficiaries of the great wealth labor has produced, should be the ones to define “public good” and the proper ways to promote it. Carnegie also insists that wealth amassed should be disposed of during the lifetime of the wealthy individual; that it is distasteful to pass it along after death, when its use can no longer be controlled. The libraries that bear his name were his way of relieving himself of his hoard.

In the Johnston flood, sixteen hundred homes were destroyed, the vast majority of them belonging to Cambria steelworkers.

Carnegie grew up poor, the son of a textile worker in Scotland. His family emigrated to Pittsburgh, where he got his first job as a bobbin boy in a textile mill, working twelve-hour shifts six days a week. Eventually, he started work at the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Despite the fact that his professional rise began with investment help from the notoriously corrupt railroad executive, Thomas A. Scott, Carnegie credits his up-by-the-bootstraps success to his access to and passion for good literature. A Pittsburgh neighbor opened his personal library to working boys on Saturday afternoons. Carnegie was a frequent borrower. So his libraries doubled as portals to the possibility of wealth—if one had the tenacity for self-education, as his story of himself goes—and as monuments to his own personal history.

“Wealth” decries charity as a conduit for laziness and considers higher wages and public welfare to be among charity’s most offensive forms. The masses, the essay argues, cannot be trusted to make good decisions regarding the resources higher wages might afford. Building of “a noble public library where the treasures of the world [are] contained in books,” would mean “doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.” Carnegie, as he tended to do, later contributed funds to rebuild Johnstown’s library.

Crucially, Carnegie paid only for the construction of the buildings that would house his libraries. Staffing them, filling them with books, and maintaining them would be the responsibility of each community that accepted one of his grants. To keep costs down, he recommended a shift from the traditional closed-stack configuration, a staff-heavy model in which librarians would talk with each patron about their interests and then bring texts to them, to an open-stack system, in which patrons locate their own materials—making possible what is, for me, the often joyful experience of hunting through the stacks, but also cutting down the number of paid staff positions. Then, in order to avoid the theft of books, which the opening of the stacks might invite, architects oversaw the design of the buildings to accommodate the smaller staff by placing large circulation desks in the center of the buildings, near the entrances, and separating reading rooms by glass partitions so librarians could surveil the space and its patrons.

Circulation desk at the Carnegie Library in St. Louis, Missouri, 1903. | Library of Congress

Some librarians resisted this model, reluctant to become book cops and displeased at the spending of vast sums of money for the construction of ostentatious buildings instead of simply increasing collections and library services. Opposition came in other forms as well, from numerous communities across the country. In February of 1894, the National Labor Tribune published a satirical gutting of Carnegie written by “A Workman” that called out the hypocrisy of the wholesale impoverishment of communities of workers and then building grand libraries in the middle of their town squares. The letter begins, “Oh, Almighty Andrew Philanthropist Library Carnegie, who art in America when not in Europe spending the money of your slaves and serfs, thou art a good father to the people of Pittsburgh, Homestead and Beaver Falls. We bow before thee in humble obedience.”

Later, in March of 1901, the New Castle Dispatch printed the full text of a resolution passed by the Trades Assembly, Division 89 of the Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees after Carnegie offered the town $50,000 for a library building:

The spirit of hero-worship that prompts the acceptance of such gifts and that looks upon structures thus erected as monuments to the memory of the donor is only another form of manifesting the spirit for the monarch: a recognition of the divine right of kings on the one hand and utter disregard of how the money was made on the other.

To erect such a library here and by its partisan, outspoken influence induce our children to look upon it as a logical, necessary and unavoidable method of obtaining certain benefits, tends to destroy in the minds any idea of national justice or human rights and makes of them willing supplicants at the mercy of this system of corporate greed . . . It would be something like a semblance of justice if these donations were made to the widows and orphans at Homestead.

The call for justice here comes not in response to the atrocity at Johnstown, but instead to the Homestead Lockout, a more directly violent plot enacted by Carnegie and Frick in 1892, three years after the Johnstown flood. Carnegie was in Scotland and had left his Homestead mill, where a union contract was set to expire, in Frick’s hands. By telegram, Carnegie cheered on Frick, praising his reputation as a vicious union buster, telling him to do whatever it would take to break the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AA) at Homestead. Frick’s first move was to unilaterally slash wages, and when workers protested, to lock out all 3,800 of them and then surround the Homestead mill with fencing and barbed wire.

Two days later, the locked-out workers broke in. They occupied the mill and stationed themselves throughout the surrounding community to keep out any nonunion workers the company might try to bring in. Frick hired the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a notorious anti-union security firm, to take the mill back by force in order to flood it with scabs and relaunch production. At 3 a.m., a horse rider sped through town, alerting people that tugboats carrying hundreds of Pinkertons were on their way up the Monongahela River. Thousands of people descended to the river’s bank and exchanged fire with the agents. The workers rolled a flaming freight train car at the barges, and then poured oil into the river and bombed it with dynamite. Nine workers were killed during the attack, but after twelve hours, the Pinkertons surrendered. The workers had succeeded in holding their occupation of the mill, but the victory did not last—Pennsylvania’s governor ordered state militia into Homestead. Armed with Gatling guns, they took over the plant and ushered in the scabs, many of whom had arrived in locked boxcars during the night and had no idea where they were.

After four months of watching these scabs pump production through the mill doors, and after public support for the union workers dissipated when Alexander Berkman attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, Homestead workers started returning to the mill. Their strike was broken. Those who returned worked longer shifts for less money than before.

The strike nearly bankrupted the union, a vulnerability that was ravenously exploited by other steel companies, first in the Pittsburgh area and then across the Midwest, which, one by one, refused to sign new contracts with the union. By 1909, just seventeen years after Homestead, the union had bled down to less than a third of its peak membership. In 1935, what was left of the beleaguered union merged with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, and in 1942, the two became the United Steelworkers, the union now organizing the Carnegie library workers in Pittsburgh.

Library workers are organizing well beyond the Carnegie system. And museum workers are joining them—on the heels of the library win, workers at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh launched a campaign to join the Steelworkers as well, which they have since officially voted to do. All of this organizing is undeniably a good sign; the demand for “a voice at work” is a demand for workplace democracy, a radical upending of the anti-democratic ideals espoused in “Wealth.” But I wonder if it’s a kind of warning, too. If we are not able to curb the obscene economic disparity that is again at play—now, in this  “New Gilded Age”—if we’re unable to organize the millions of desperately underpaid workers of today’s robber baron–owned corporations, we will be organizing, a century from now, the people who work at  the various cultural shrines they build for themselves.

I saw a news article recently about a space hotel conceived of by architects, who, with funding they hope to receive from Elon Musk, plan to have it open for business by 2027. That same day I watched a video in which Jeff Bezos, who currently makes around $205 million dollars a day, returned to Earth after spending four minutes in space and thanked Amazon workers for paying for the trip, which had a price tag in the billions. Amazon workers make, on average, less than $30,000 per year, and in the few places where they have attempted to organize unions, such as Bessemer, Alabama, Bezos and his cronies have rabidly and illegally fought back. The Amazon Labor Union’s recent victory at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island is a watershed moment, but the workers there face another long battle for their first contract.

This has all been said and researched and taught and learned and catch-phrased, but it’s true: the only way to stop the hoarding of extreme wealth is to prevent it from happening. For workers to collectively demand what is owed—not what they believe they deserve, but what they themselves in fact produce. Wealth is simply unpaid wages. Let’s organize it. Let’s democratize it. Today. Right now. Before we’re fighting the Musk Zoo on some space cruise vessel; the Bezos Arboretum on the Moon. Before it’s too late.