Carnegie was 'brutal boss who exploited his workforce'

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HE IS revered as the man who made the classic rags-to-riches transformation, the son of a poor Scottish weaver who became the world's richest man then gave away his fortune to help those less fortunate.

Andrew Carnegie became known as the "father of philanthropy" after making his millions in the American steel industry of the 19th century. By his death he had given away more than $350m and set up over 2,800 public libraries.

But the man whose motto was "the man who dies rich dies disgraced" had a dark side and was capable of ruthlessness and cruelty, according to a new book.

Les Standiford claims the Scot was a "brutal" employer, a "Machiavellian" who exploited his workforce and then gave away his money to salve his troubled conscience.

"I see him as one of these classic figures with the devil perched on one shoulder and an angel on the other," said Standiford. "But when the chips were down he always made a decision that would benefit Andrew Carnegie.

"What is maddening is his apparent inability to recognise the vast gulf between his own view of himself and the actual Machiavellian he was when it came to squeezing the last drop of effort out of his workers.

"Carnegie's family were essentially anti-establishment figures in Scotland and he knew full well about the rights of the working man and what was just and right, he even wrote very eloquently about it. But this was the same man who would turn round and treat his employees badly."

Standiford's book acknowledges Carnegie's philanthropic endeavours, but paints him as a man with a deep-seated hatred of trade unions.

In 1883, Standiford claims Carnegie used a drop in steel prices to argue with the Knights of Labour and the Amalgamated Iron and Steel Workers at his Edgar Thompson Works in Braddock, Pennsylvania, for a 20% cut in wages.

The alternative was that the plant would be shut down and the men locked out. The workers capitulated. But three years later the plant was shut down by Carnegie 10 days before Christmas when he discovered one of his rivals had achieved a cut in wages of between 15% and 20%.

Standiford said: "Carnegie had his plant manager post a notice that the works would close for an indefinite period and that 1,600 men would be put out of work with the stated reason being plant renovation. But Carnegie had resolved that the real purpose was to drive out the unions, only non-union men would be rehired when they reopened the plant.

"By February of 1885, with the men facing starvation and freezing temperatures and no money to buy food or coal, they agreed to come back in under individual contracts, their wages decreased by up to 33%. The union was crushed forever at the plant."

Standiford also suggests that Carnegie played a greater part than is traditionally accepted in the notorious attempt to break a strike at his Homestead works in Pittsburgh in 1892, the deadliest clash between management and labour in US history.

Carnegie was holidaying at Skibo Castle in Scotland and directed his company chairman, Henry Clay Frick, to deal with the workers. Frick brought in armed guards and a shoot-out followed with 12 people losing their lives.

"Frick has always been blamed for Homestead but a letter written from Scotland by Carnegie said: 'We are with you to the end.' I think it suited Carnegie to take himself off to Scotland and let Frick take the flak," said Standiford.

"Were there other owners out there just as cunning, and just as brutal if not more? Of course. Does that excuse Carnegie's behaviour? Not unless one operates at the crassest level of moral relativism."

Standiford, an established author in the US and Professor of English at Florida International University in Miami, spent over a year researching Carnegie, describing him as a "conflicting individual".

He acknowledged that Carnegie had written early in his life that philanthropy was the "obligation of the wealthy", but added: "I believe that an awareness of his own lapses and excesses carried him through that resolution to give his fortune away.

"He was certainly no saint.

Carnegie was an extremely driven and talented businessman but the ability to work hard and make a lot of money does not necessarily qualify you to make ethical and moral pronouncements. I think unfortunately he was one of those conflicting individuals.

Carnegie was born in 1836 in Dunfermline, Fife. His father was a handloom weaver and an active Chartist who marched for the rights of the working man. When Carnegie was 12 his family moved to Pennsylvania and he set about making his fortune in the steel industry.

The book's title, Meet You In Hell, is inspired by a comment allegedly made by Frick when he was passed a letter from the dying Carnegie, suggesting the two men should make up their differences. Frick is said to have told the messenger, "Tell him I'll see him in Hell, where we are both going."

Bill Livingstone, convener of the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum in Dunfermline, sprang to Carnegie's defence but insisted he "did not need an apologist".

"It sounds as though it's a pretty black and white portrait of Andrew Carnegie when in reality life is various shades of grey. When you look at his life story, it is a testament to personal self-improvement and he grew up in what he called 'the humble home of honest poverty' in Dunfermline.

"He decided, and uniquely achieved, the feat of giving away 90% of his fortune in his own lifetime when he could dictate and shape the purposes for which the money was spent.

"There is no doubt his philanthropy has opened the door to life's choices for millions of people throughout the world through more than 20 worldwide foundations."