The Homestead Strike

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The Basics

Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas

10th Grade American Literature

Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930

Common Core Standards Addressed:

Writing Standards for English Language Arts 6-12


Lisa Roule (2006)

The Lesson


This song was written after the Homestead Strike of 1892, when steelworkers clashed with captains of the steel industry over working conditions in the mills.   A movement to unionize labor forces was brought to a screeching halt when incomplete media coverage of the Battle of 1892 caused a public outcry against the workers’ treatment of the Pinkertons, and laborers brought in from the outside to maintain output in the mills during the workers’ strike. 


This song captures the spirit of the workers, and communicates the deeply-held beliefs that men have a right to defend their livelihoods from the machinations of a “grasping corporation.”  Additional information about the Homestead Strike is available at


Guiding Questions

  • How does Chicago history reflect the national issues of labor and unionization?
  • How did national changes in industry impact the social and economic condition of South Chicago?
  • How do songs and other forms of literature serve to communicate the ideas and issues of the day?
  • What makes music an effective conduit for communication? 


Learning Objectives

Using a variety of texts, students will examine the national labor movement at the end of the nineteenth century, focusing on worker motivation as well as local ramifications of the rise and fall of industry.

Preparation Instructions

Song used in this lesson: "Song of a Strike" (George Swetnam, 1892)

Lesson Activities

Opening Activity – Free Write (5 mins)

  • Respond to the following quote: 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

  • Possible guiding questions:  What is the source of this quote? (Declaration of Independence)  What issues come into your mind when you read this?  Does it apply to all people?  What events in American History show people struggling to obtain/maintain these rights?


Main Activity


  • Step One:     Working with the Text:             
    • Use the information available in the lyrics to answer the following questions: What were the goals of the workers in the Homestead Strike? How did they go about achieving their goals? How did the workers feel about the people opposing them?  How do we know? Based on what the lyrics tell us, what do you think was the final outcome of the Homestead Strike?
    • How do the instrumental sounds of the song add to its overall meaning? Do you think the musical tone matches the emotional content of the lyrics?  How does the music serve to emphasize the more important sections of lyric? 
  • Step Two:   Internet Research
    • Conduct a web search on the Homestead Strike of 1892.  What actually happened at the Homestead Strike, and what were the consequences? 


  • Step Three:   Timed writing prompt:  (5 mins)
    • Does the way the song is performed in this recording suggest a strategy or purpose beyond entertainment?  Who do you think is the intended audience for this song, and why?  


**Teachers may also need to consider pre-teaching vocabulary on the following terms: syndicate, toil, indignation, recourse to arms, audacity, renounce, forswear**


  • View models of poetry slam (see resources below) and discuss elements of “slam.” What does it look like?  What does it sound like?  What kinds of messages are being communicated?  (Rubric for project could be developed based on student input at this stage)
  • Write a poem/song dealing with the issues of worker rights, past or present.  These poems will be performed in “slam” format—so be conscious of how you will present them…What percussive elements, or movements, or verbal emphases, can add additional layers of meaning to your message?


Extending the Lesson

  • Field Trips to local historic sites: Pullman model town, Chicago historical society, etc…
  • Extended Research projects on local events or individuals




“Song of a Strike”


We are asking one another

 as we pass the time of day

Why working men resort to arms

 to get their proper pay,

And why our labor unions

 they must not be recognized,

While the actions of a syndicate

 must not be criticized.

Now the troubles down at Homestead

 were brought about this way

When a grasping corporation

 had the audacity to say:

"You must all renounce your union

 and forswear your liberty,

And we'll give you a chance to live

 and die in slavery."


Now the man that fights for honor,

 none can blame him.

May luck attend wherever he may roam.

And no son of his will ever live

 to shame him.

Whilst Liberty and Honor rule our Home.

Now this sturdy band of working men

 started out at the break of day

Determination in their faces

 which plainly meant to say:

"No one can come and take our homes

 for which we have toiled so long

No one can come and take our places ---

 no, here's where we belong!"

A woman with a rifle

 saw her husband in the crowd,

She handed him the weapon

 and they cheered her long and loud.

He kissed her and said, "Mary,

 you go home till we're through."

She answered,"No. If you must die,

 my place is here with you."


When a lot of tramp detectives

 came without authority

Like thieves at night when decent men

 were sleeping peacefully---

Can you wonder why all honest hearts

 with indignation burn,

And why the slimy worm that treads the earth

 when trod upon will turn?

When they locked out men at Homestead

 so they were face to face

With a lot of bum detectives

 and they knew it was their place

To protect their homes and families,

 and this was neatly done

And the public will reward them

 for the victories they won.





Copyright 2011-2012 Center for American Music, University of Pittsburgh Library System