The Bay View Massacre in Milwaukee resulted in the death of seven people and at least one child, after more than 5,000 Polish workers walked off their jobs and gathered at a local church to denounce their ten hour work day. After calling for other workers to join them, they marched through town together with another 7,000 workers in support. Republican Governor Rusk's response was to give the state militia orders to shoot anyone who came close.
Author's Note: This work was first published on 21 Feb 2011 during a period when Governor Scott Walker was waging war on union labor in Wisconsin. Let us never forget that people have died in the defense of the weekend and the eight-hour day. Have a great Labor Day Holiday, everyone.
In 1886, employees were worked 10 hours a day, and sometimes 12 or even up to 16-hour days, six days a week. They made $.90 to $1.15 a day. Early labor unions, like The Federation of Organized Trades, formulated a plan. They would evangelize for the an 8-hour work day for a period of a full two years. After that, on 01 May 1886, all workers not yet on the 8-hour system were to cease work in a nationwide strike until their employer met the demand.
The good news in Milwaukee was that the local government adopted the 8-hour workday as law. The bad news is that there was no associated provision for its enforcement. Local labor groups were livid, and united to take action.
Unlike the Haymarket Square bombing, which was to happen over labor reasons as well within 24 hours in Chicago, Bay View started out entirely peacefully. With a picnic and a parade.
The local Central Labour Union sponsored the parade, and held signs aloft proclaiming, "Eight hour is our battlecry", and "We do not work for King Mammon". The Milwaukee Journal billed it as the biggest event in the city's history.
Some 25,000 people watched the parade, and afterwards there was a picnic at the Milwaukee gardens with speakers denouncing the 10 hour workday and voicing concerns over employers taking advantage of employees. They worked the crowd into a frenzy and before long everyone was chanting "Eight Hours! Eight Hours!"
800 workers began to march, picking up Polish craftsmen and other tradesmen along the way. When the marchers reached Edward P. Allis Reliant Steel works, they were met by foremen and supervisors who tried to keep the marchers away with high pressure water hoses, but when the workers inside heard the chanting they stopped working and joined the march.
The owners of CM&STO Car Company, which made railroad cars, had a special train placed at Governor Jeremiah Rusk's disposal, who rushed to Milwaukee and set up his office at the Plankinton Hotel. Employers were asking Governor Rusk to call out the militia, but Rusk initially refused, saying that he was not willing to over-extend his hand.
By the third day, the strikers had shut down every factory they visited by virtue of the fact that factory workers put down their tools and joined the strike brigade as they went. There were about 1,500 of them at this point - Germans, Poles, and some Native Americans. These were just the marchers - the total number of strikers in the city numbered 12,000.
By the time the marchers reached the Rolling Mills steel factory in the Bay View Neighborhood, the local police who had been following along sent word to the Governor that the size of the crowd was beyond their ability to control at that point. Republican Governor Rusk responded by calling in a greater security contingency - the local Lincoln Guard, the Kosciusko Guard (comprised mostly of Polish businessmen), and over 250 US National Guardsmen.
The appearance of the Kosciusko contingency didn't go over well. Polish tradesmen called on their countrymen to "join them or go home". Tempers flared, rocks were fecklessly thrown, and the Kosciusko Guardsmen responded with several shots in the air. The strikers ignored the Kosciusko unit after this, and pushed past them.
Meanwhile, Governor Rusk was under considerable pressure from employers to stop the strike. Employers were saying that they would turn the entire society upside down and use the bombing in Haymarket Square, which happened the day before, as their proof that a revolution is under way.
Rusk called the Mills and told Captain Treaumer of the Lincoln Guard "if the strikers try to enter the mill, shoot to kill." Captain Treaumer then ordered his men to pick out a man, concentrate and kill him when the order is given. The strikers spent the night in open fields nearby while the Militia camps stayed at the Mills with sentries posted. During the night the sentries were shooting at anything that moved. A US Navy tug brought provisions for the guard.
The next morning, the crowd approached the mill and faced the militia who were ready to fire. Before Capt. Treaumer knew the crowd's real intentions he ordered the marchers to halt, but the strikers, who were about two hundred yards away, did not hear him.
Treaumer ordered the militia to fire. The crowd was in chaos as people fled the scene. The Milwaukee Journal reported that six were dead and at least eight more were expected to die within twenty four hours.
Meanwhile, some strikers called for revenge on the militia but to no avail. For several days afterwards a few strikers were still marching throughout the city but no one would join them. The dead included a thirteen year old boy who tagged along with the crowd wondering what was going on and a retired worker who lived in Bay View. He was struck down by a stray bullet, as he was getting water and was not part of the strike.
While cleaning up, the guardsmen found two more bodies along the railroad tracks, apparently Polish immigrants who were part of the strike. The two remain unidentified to this day. Everyone went back to work at ten hours a day.
On May 9, The Milwaukee Journal reported that Edward P. Allis was firing its Polish workers and replacing them with other nationalities because the Polish people were too radical. Other companies follow suit for the same reason and for a time no Pole could find work in Milwaukee. Meanwhile the Polish section boycotted the businesses of the Kosciuko Guard members. The National Guard pulled out on May 13.
An inquiry of the events praised the guards' actions calling it an unpleasant duty, a humane gesture for firing only one volley and indicts at least twenty Poles for leading an unlawful assembly. They were sentenced to hard labour ranging from six to nine months.
The Milwaukee Journal reported that businesses were giving cash to the Militia units for their actions at Rolling Mills. The Journal denounced the action saying they did what was expected of them and this was going too far. As a result of public sympathy for the strikers, the voters of Milwaukee county replaced all county and city governments with socialist representatives in 1888.
Since then Milwaukee has had at least three socialist mayors the last one serving from 1948-1960. Mayor Hoan served 24 years. Victor Berger served in congress for 29 years. In 1916, he was banned from his seat for his stand on U.S. involvement in World War I. He felt it was a Capitalist war to make money for big business. During his ban, he was re-elected. His Newspaper "The Leader" was called disloyal and the U.S. Postal Service was prohibited by the disloyalty laws to deliver it thru their system.
The grassroots eight hour movement was derailed and political parties came in to the fray, claiming to fight for the rights of workers, the eight hour workday and child labor laws. Among these were the Socialist Labor party, the Populace Party (led by Robert Shilling), and the Progressive Party founded by fighting Bob LaFollette who became Governor of Wisconsin. He then went on to Congress where he died still in office, in 1924 after a close bid for president. His son took over his office and held it until 1948 when the Progressive Party folded.
It is difficult to over-estimate the degree to which the people of the state of Wisconsin have historically had one unified mind with regards to their own self determination.
They have forfeited their lives for it.