How did Andrew Carnegie treat his workers?

Andrew Carnegie was a well-known philanthropist who worked tirelessly to spend his fortune bettering the world. However, before he was a philanthropist, he owned a steel company called Carnegie Steel Company.

The steel industry is grueling work, and that was no different back when Carnegie owned his company in the late 1880s and into the early 1900s.

Was Andrew Carnegie a Hero or Villain?

The way Andrew Carnegie treated his workers has been a subject of some controversy over the years. Many people cannot agree if he was the hero or the villain in his life. Truthfully, he was a little bit of both.

Villain

Andrew Carnegie expected a lot out of his workers in the steel mill. They worked long hours and had little to no holidays. Most years, the only day they did not work was the Fourth of July. Andrew Carnegie scheduled his workers to work twelve hours every single day, all seven days of the week.

Andrew Carnegie became very wealthy during his time owning the steel company. While he was making millions of dollars in fortune, his workers struggled in a harsh work environment. Carnegie’s workers were paid a very small amount for their work. Their wages barely made their lives livable.

Dangerous Work Environment

The environment when working in a steel mill is also incredibly dangerous. At this time, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where Carnegie Steel was located, an astounding twenty percent of deaths amongst all men were from steel factory injuries. As the largest and most well-renowned steel company in the area, a large number of men died from work-related injuries every year.

In the 1880s, an explosion in the steel factory resulted in several deaths. When the press came to speak with Andrew Carnegie about the accident, he seemed much more worried about the loss of time in production and the loss of machinery than the loss of life. This soured the public and his own workers towards him and his attitude towards his workers.

Pay Reduction

Nevertheless, throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Andrew Carnegie continued to try to save money by cutting his workers' salaries, which were already dangerously low, to begin with.

In 1892, his workers got a pay reduction of 30 percent. If a worker could not keep up because of age, physical condition, or pure exhaustion, he would be fired immediately.

The Homestead Strike

In indignation and frustration, Carnegie’s workers could not take it anymore. In 1892, his workers went on strike. The homestead strike, also known as the homestead riot, was led by a group of unsatisfied workers.

On July 6, 1892, in Homestead, Pennsylvania, a group of Carnegie steelworkers expressed their dissatisfaction with low wages, terrible hours, low quality of living, and poor working conditions.

The Homestead Strike ended up being extremely violent. Shots were fired by handguns on both sides, and a dozen people were killed. Many more were injured. Andrew Carnegie refused to let his workers form a union, and several other big business tycoons agreed with him, maintaining poor conditions in their businesses as well.

Controlling His Wealth

Because he refused to let his workers unionize, he was able to lower the wages of the men who worked for him. This helped him to maintain his own wealth, taking home the majority of the profits from the Carnegie Steel Company. Up until the end of his time at Carnegie Steel Company, Andrew Carnegie continued to hold his workers to unreasonable standards.

Early Life

The dichotomy of Andrew Carnegie’s life is a very challenging concept to understand. As a young boy immigrating to America from Scotland, Andrew Carnegie and his family fell on hard times as they figured out what they needed to do to stay afloat.

At age 13, young Andrew Carnegie got his first job. From that time until his purchase of the steel mill, he never stopped working. He pushed himself to learn and educated himself in his free time using the library of a local retired colonel. At the age of 25, he was in a prestigious position on the Pennsylvania railroad and bought some shares to eventually become the owner of Carnegie Steel Company.

As a previous worker himself and an immigrant, it would be easy to assume that Andrew Carnegie would have understood the plight of an overworked and underpaid worker. This was not the case. As Andrew Carnegie gained wealth, he treated his workers worse and worse. He took the profit for himself and added to his own personal wealth.

Hero

As Andrew Carnegie reached the end of his career, he started to consider selling Carnegie Steel Company. He made a lot of money from the sale of his business endeavors, and he started to think about the way he was using his money and the way he treated his workers.

Although he never said it specifically, many people speculate that Andrew Carnegie felt guilty for what he had put his workers through, and that’s why he changed his course later in his life. After he sold his company and retired, Andrew Carnegie started a new path of philanthropy.

As soon as he started investing his money in various causes, he realized that wealth was not worth everything. He made it his goal to give away every cent of his money before he died. He was known to say, “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” This quote came from a book he wrote titled The Gospel of Wealth.

Andrew Carnegie believed that wealth is not meant to be held onto and carried with you but to benefit the world. At the height of his wealth, Andrew Carnegie was worth around $309 billion, which is triple what Bill Gates is worth today.

When he got married, his wife signed a prenuptial agreement, agreeing not to take his fortune if something should happen to him. He established trustees over his money so that his wishes would still be carried out, even after his death.

Andrew Carnegie contributed to research projects on insulin and nuclear warfare, and he funded libraries, schools, universities, and even Sesame Street. His contribution to the academic and artistic communities is impressive, as he has donated buildings and books, and concert halls.

His main goal was to fund libraries all over the English-speaking world so that education would be available to anyone, regardless of economic status.

The Dichotomy

The contrast between Carnegie as a boss and steelworker and Carnegie as a philanthropist is jarring. There is no doubt that the contributions he made to the world as a philanthropist were great and will continue to last, even now, long after his death. However, as a boss, Andrew Carnegie hurt the people he worked for and their families.

He was a man of great principle and character later in life but selfish and single-minded early in life. There is no excuse for over-working employees to the point of death of employees, danger in the workplace, and destruction of families.

There is no explanation that can make it better that he gained wealth drastically while his employees struggled to provide for their families and strived to live each day. There is no consolation for the families that lost loved ones in the Homestead Strike or the steelworks explosion.

As a boss and as a company chief executive officer, Andrew Carnegie did not treat his employees well at all. The workers' rights movement suffered a lot because of Andrew Carnegie’s refusal to work with his employees rather than against them.

Conclusion

All in all, the work that Andrew Carnegie did as a philanthropist did, in fact, change the world. However, that does not excuse the shameful way he treated the men who worked for him.

It is assumed that many of his choices as a philanthropist may have been to make up for his actions as a business tycoon earlier in his life, but there is no way to confirm this. One would hope that Andrew Carnegie became a philanthropist who was focused on educating the working class because of his vast regret on the subject.

However, there is no question that he did not treat his workers well. In his life, as a boss, he is an example of leadership that should not be followed.


About the Author
James has over 20 years of experience as a leader and entrepreneur. As a founder, he led startup teams as well as million-dollar companies. He has recently turned to leadership coaching and writing to pass his knowledge to the next generation. If you have any questions or comments regarding the content of this post, please send us a message via the contact page.

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