Bay View Tragedy
More than 300 attend 127th Anniversary program on Bay View Massacre
More than 300 persons gathered at the Bay View Rolling Mills Historical Marker Site on Milwaukee’s lakefront on Sunday, May 5th to commemorate and honor the seven persons who were killed by the State Militia 127 years ago as they marched in an eight-hour-day rally.
For the third straight year, this year’s event featured the popular re-enactment of the Bay View Tragedy performed by the Milwaukee Public Theatre with the Milwaukee Puppet and Mask Theatre. Michael Gordon, professor emeritus of history from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, spoke at the program that has been celebrated since 1986.
The program has become a popular event that calls attention to the struggles of workers to achieve a greater quality of life through a humane working day. Up until the 1886 tragedy, workers had been campaigning through rallies, marches and other efforts to establish the principle of the eight-hour day.
The Milwaukee rally for the cause ended with the State Militia firing into a crowd of about 1500 workers marching toward the old Bay View Rolling Mills (Milwaukee’s largest employer) and killing seven. The event was sponsored by the Wisconsin Labor History Society in cooperation with the Bay View Historical Society, the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO and the Milwaukee Area Labor Council.
NEW!! View the 2012 Ceremony!
Click on this link: Bay View Video.
Worker spirit kindled by 1886 Tragedy;
event linked to Wisconsin ‘uprising’ of 2011
May 6th Ceremony marks Wisconsin’s most historic labor incident
The solidarity of Wisconsin workers in the Uprising of 2011 has much in common with the spirit of the workers 126 years ago when they marched and gave their lives for the 8-hour-day. Those similarities were highlighted in the annual observance of the Bay View Tragedy held on a rainy Sunday (May 6) to commemorate the May 5, 1886 incident when the State Militia fired upon working people marching for the eight-hour day, and killed seven. The Wisconsin Labor History Society, working with a group of Bay View residents and others, has held this annual memorial ceremony for 26 years. Even heavy rains that fell up to an hour before the event and then picked up again shortly after it ended could not dampen the spirit of the more than 300 who attended. Hundreds more likely stayed away because of the weather. Because of continually threatening rain, the ceremony actually began inside the hall of Club Garibaldi, located opposite the Rolling Mills Historical marker site, but soon into the ceremonies the hall was filled to over-capacity with some hundred persons left outside; fire regulations forced the ceremony to end and resume outdoors, where it continued, featuring the re-enactment of the 1886 event. The dramatic re-enactment was staged by the Milwaukee Public Theatre, featuring three prominent actors from the Milwaukee area with Flora Coker reading the narration, Dan Mooney reading fictional lines of the industrialists and Ron Scot Fry reading lines of labor leaders. As they read the lines, larger-than-life-sized puppets moved in front of the audience. One represented the 1886 Wisconsin Governor Jeremiah Rusk (who ordered the militia to fire) and the other Paul Grottkau (one of the leaders of the eight-hour-day marchers). It was the second year the re-enactment had been staged, and the performance has quickly become a widely anticipated part of the annual event. This year’s event was held just two days before the primary election – preliminary to the recall election of Walker, the lieutenant governor and four state senators – and brought out Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Peter Bock, representing his wife and gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Falk, to make brief speeches. Both were roundly cheered as they pledged to restore collective bargaining rights to the state’s public employees. Another 12 political leaders spoke briefly including: former State Senator Jon Lehman (D-Racine) seeking to unseat a Republican incumbent; newly elected County Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitriievic; State Senators Chris Larson and Lena Taylor (cheered for being among the 14 Democratic state senators who fled the state to temporarily prevent Walker from passing the anti-union bargaining bill); Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) and Representatives Jon Richards, Sandy Pasch and Chris Sinicki, all Milwaukee Democrats; County Supervisor Jason Haas; Mahlon Mitchell, of Madison, a firefighter’s union leader seeking the Democratic nomination in the recall election for lieutenant governor; plus Dan Riemer, running in the 21st Assembly District, and Kelley Albrecht, running against Rep. Robin Vos of Racine.
Parallels between 1886 and today are ‘chilling’
Stephanie Bloomingdale, the first woman to be elected as secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, gave the major address of the day, comparing the struggles of 1886 with the current efforts to fight against the antiunion legislation being enacted in Madison and the ensuing recall election. “The parallels between then and now are chilling,” she said. Both Governors Jeremiah Rusk (in 1886) and Scott Walker (in 2011) ordered out the state militia or National Guard with orders to move in on the workers. Both governors, she said, were doing the work of those who want a world that rewards millionaires at the expense” of workers, while trampling the rights of teachers, nurses, firefighters and others, challenging the rights of women, cutting back on education and ruining the environment. Referring to the seven who were killed in 1886, Bloomingdale asked: “Did they die in vain?” Shouts of “no” resounded in answer. “No, they did not,” she responded, “Their sacrifice lit a flame that illuminated the path for a generation of Americans . . . They blazed a trail not only for the eight-hour-day but to provide the power toward gaining the benefits we would all enjoy in the future.” Bloomingdale called attention to the thousands who demonstrated in Madison in20ll and the millions who signed recall petitions during the campaigns in following winter- Like the events of 100 years ago, when the governor’s extreme actions were met by the power of the ballot to elect progressive candidates in succeeding elections, the workers of Wisconsin are turning to the ballot to challenge the current governor, she said. “And now we have the opportunity.” “Those who wanted to divide us have failed because we are united as we have never been before,” she said. “History has shown the path for America shall run through Wisconsin.” Bloomingdale concluded that workers and citizens today have a “debt of honor that we owe to those who died before us,” and that the debt will be honored when the state with the June 5th recall election will “reclaim Wisconsin.”
Historian John Gurda said 1886 galvanized workers to enact historic reforms in years that followed
Nearly 100 persons returned to Club Garibaldi to hear Milwaukee Historian John Gurda speak on the lasting significance of the 1886 incident. He called it “signal event, not just here, but nationally.” Even after deadly force had been used against the workers, the workers were not cowed, he said. On May 23rd, just three weeks after the tragedy, the Knights of Labor sponsored a march that attracted 5,000 workers along a five-mile route, declaring that “they were not going to be silenced,” he said. Robert Schilling, the Knights leader, said after the shootings that the order to shoot the marchers was a “cowardly, calculated event” but that labor would not reply in violence. The incident represented a “call to action” for workers, Schilling said at the time: “The core victims are dead and buried. They shall be revenged, not by making blood flow, not through force, but the citizens have a weapon mightier than the bat and the bayonet – the ballot.” Gurda said the workers and their unions formed the Peoples’ Party in the aftermath, and in the fall of 1886 won a majority of the offices in Milwaukee County, half of Milwaukee’s seats in the Legislature besides sending a millwright named Henry Smith to Congress. “This was a clear validation of those victims who fell in 1886,” Gurda said. It was a triumph of national consequence since no labor-oriented political movement in the country did better. It didn’t last, since the Republicans and Democrats created a fusion coalition to regain control, obviously feeling they had more in common with each other than they did with labor at that time, Gurda said. “The seed had been planted,” he said. “This was something that was not going to go away.” Less than a decade later, workers and their allies, fueled by the pent-up emotions of the Bay View event, created the Socialist Party, by Victor Berger, who would later become a U. S. Congressman. He created what he called was the “Milwaukee Idea,” linking workers and Socialists together, beginning to run candidates for office in 1898. He said the Socialists were able to show they could govern honestly and efficiently, in contrast to a decade of “grafters” that had featured Milwaukee government. In 1910, Emil Seidel was elected mayor as a Socialist and the party swept the election. This began about 50 years of Socialist mayors, all of whom supported labor, Gurda said. They transformed Milwaukee from one of the most corrupt cities to perhaps the most efficiently run city in the nation, he said. Gurda said the 2011 State Legislature’s passage of Act 10 that took away collective bargaining rights for public employees was just as devastating as the events of 1886, even though no deaths occurred. “The lessons of 1886 are the same as today,” he said. “Our ancestors realized that nothing changes unless we work together to resist the intolerable.” He said the recall election for June 5 is a chance to recall and renew the spirit of 1886. Responding to Gurda’s remarks, retired History Professor Michael Gordon agreed that the Tragedy of 1886 found workers getting into politics in order to win their rights. Pretty quickly, he said, workers understood that in order to be successful they had to form coalitions, even with those who are not workers or union members. He said that workers joined with the farmers and middle-class families; in the early 20th Century, workers reached out and joined with the Progressive movement and in the 1930s with others to form the so-called New Deal Coalition of the Democratic Party, African-Americans, women and even white Southern landowners. Coalition-building continues to the present day, always including those who support fair treatment, Gordon said. He retired recently from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee where one of his specialties included labor and oral histories. He cited a number of incidents in which workers joining in solidarity to gain basic rights were met with violence like that in 1886, such as the 1912 Lawrence textile strikes and numerous other acts of violence from 1877 into the early 1900s. Speaking of the workers who were engaged in all of these events, Gordon said, “These are the people to whom I owe a debt and always will.” Also responding was WLHS President Steve Cupery who said that in recent years many workers “forget the lessons of history and they didn’t turn out to the polls,” referring obviously to the 2010 elections when the Republican Party took over the State Legislature and Gov. Walker was elected. As a result, he said that while change is usually slow, it became instantaneously when it came to “taking away people’s rights” and “taking us backward.” Cupery, who is a representative for the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), referred to the Oconomowoc School District, which has established new policies that layoff teachers, increase class sizes and take preparatory time from teachers. Studies show that teachers work between 10.5 and11.5 hours a day and that the average workweek is 58 hours for teachers, he said. When you take away that preparatory time, it amounts to a “speed-up,” he said. “We always have to remain vigilant, we need to participate at the ballot box, we need to organize our families, friends and neighbors and reach out to them, talk to them about the values we believe in and get them to vote. We know our adversaries are doing that. It’s up to us to get out there to organize like we’ve never organized before,” he concluded. The forum, along with the earlier ceremony and the re-enactment were filmed and are expected to be put into a video that will be available, along with a teaching guide, by next fall. The entire program, including the forum and resulting video, were planned by a committee convened by the Wisconsin Labor History Society that included representatives of the Bay View Historical Society, the labor movement, residents of the Bay View area and other interested persons. The event was funded in part from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The views expressed in the project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment.Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment of the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone.
***** Wisconsin’s most historic and bloody labor incident occurred on May 5, 1886 on the shores of Lake Michigan in the Bay View area of Milwaukee. That day dawned after four days of massive worker demonstrations throughout Milwaukee on behalf of the creation of eight-hour day laws. As some 1,500 workers marched toward the Bay View Rolling Mills (then the area’s biggest manufacturer) urging the workers thereto join the marches, the State Militia lined up on a hill, guns poised. The marchers were ordered t o stop form some 200 yards away; when they didn’t, the militiamen fired into the crowd, killing seven persons. The marchers dispersed and the eight-hour days marches ended. The incident, in spite of its immediate end to eight-hour day efforts, spurred workers and their families to look forward to build a more progressive society in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.
Each year, some 200 persons gather, under the sponsorship of the Wisconsin Labor History Society, at the Bay View Rolling Mills historical marker site at S. Superior St. and E. Russell Ave. in Milwaukee to commemorate this incident.
Below, find various resources that more fully explain the importance of this event. Also, check out the reports of the previous years’ events. The links are below.
Resources: The Bay View Tragedy and Its Impact
Workers and Unions in Wisconsin History: A Labor History Anthology. By Darryl Holter. State Historical Society of Wisconsin. 1999. (See Pages 34-46 “The Bay View Tragedy,” by Robert Nesbit, an excerpt from The History of Wisconsin, Volume III, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, 1985.) Development of the Labor Movement in Milwaukee. By Thomas W. Gavett. University of Wisconsin Press. Madison, Wis., 1965. (See Pages 50-71: Chapter 5 – RIOT!) NOTE: This book is out of print, but may be available in major Wisconsin libraries. The Labor Movement in Wisconsin: A History. By Robert W. Ozanne, State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Madison, Wis. 1984. (Chapter One: “The First Unions”) Additional Readings Labor’s Untold Story. By Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais. United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), 1965 (Second Edition). (See Pages 65-104: Chapter III – The Iron Heel). The Badger State: A Documentary History of Wisconsin. By Barbara and Justus Paul. October 1979. (See Pages 341-351. May Day: A Short History of the International Workers’ Holiday 1886-1986. By Philip S. Foner. International Publishers. New York. 1986. The American: A Middle Western Legend. By Howard Fast. Duell, Sloan & Pearce. 1946. This novel was a best seller when published more than 50 years ago. It tells the story of John Peter Altgeld, an Illinois governor who showed surprising political courage in the aftermath of the Haymarket Tragedy. Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America. By J. Anthony Lukas. Simon % Schuster. 1997. Although this concerns an 1890s labor struggle in the Idaho mines, the author traces much labor history in the late 19th Century, including mentions of Wisconsin incidents. A large book, but worth it for interested readers. For an extensive Labor History reference list please visit the Wisconsin Labor History Society Reference Page.
Suggested web sites
A good start into the web is through the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO site, www.wisaflcio.org. Click on “labor history” and find other links, plus a good bibliography. And, there’s our sister society, the Illinois Labor History website at www.kentlaw.edu/ilhs/.
Reports from previous Commemorations:
Read Excerpts: Remarks of Amy Stear at Bay View Tragedy event, May 3, 2009 (Amy Stear, Wisconsin director of 9to5, spoke at 123rd Anniversary Commemoration of the Bay View Tragedy, May 3, 2009, in Milwaukee. Read the remarks here.) Read Report of Rep. Gwen Moore’s remarks to 122nd Anniversary Commemoration on May 4, 2008.
For report on event in May, 2007, click at may 07 BV.pdf and for the May 2006 event, click at may 06 BV.pdf .
A BRIEF HISTORY:
From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sunday, April 30, 1995
When Bay View strike turned to bloodshed
Troops opened fire on workers demanding eight-hour day
by John Gurda
We gather each year to remember a tragedy. The date, May 5, is always the same, and the place is always the site of a vanished steel mill in Bay View. Even the people are generally the same, a motley bunch that includes union activists, college professors, Bay View residents, and former mayor Frank Zeidler, the group’s godfather. The tragedy we remember took place in the first week of May, 1886. For a few days in that long-ago spring, Milwaukee was practically unhinged. A general strike, affecting everyone from bakers to brewers, began on May 1 and soon brought the city to a grinding halt. On May 2, nearly 15,000 striking workers massed for the largest parade in Milwaukee’s history to that time. By May 4, after a series of less orderly demonstrations, Gov. Jeremiah Rusk had called out the militia. One day later, horrified spectators witnessed the bloodiest labor disturbance in Wisconsin’s history. What issue could have aroused such passions? Nothing more or less than the eight-hour day. Milwaukee was a stronghold of the Eight-Hour League agitation that swept the nation in 1886. Here and elsewhere, most workers routinely put in 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, for only a dollar or two a day. As the industrial work force grew from a disorganized mass to a well-defined movement, the eight-hour day, without a cut in pay, became its “password and battle cry.” A celebrated slogan summed up the movement’s core demand: “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will.” The springtime campaign produced a number of victories. Milwaukee’s Common Council passed an eight-hour ordinance for municipal workers before labor’s May 1 deadline, and more than 20 private employers followed suit. The general strike of early May was a direct response to companies that refused to adopt the new system. Using both persuasion and intimidation, the strikers soon shut down every major employer in the city, with a lone exception: the North Chicago Rolling Mills, a massive steel plant in suburban Bay View. On May 4, a group of laborers, many of them Polish immigrants, resolved to bring the mill’s leaders to heel. Nearly 700 of them gathered at St. Stanislaus Church, on the corner of 5th and Mitchell Sts., for a brisk morning walk to Bay View. When a conference with mill executives there proved fruitless, the laborers served notice that they would return. “Uncle Jerry” Rusk called out the militia in the meantime, and the troops spent an uneasy night inside the plant gates. On the morning of May 5, they faced a phalanx of marching workers that had swelled to at least 1,500. As the crowd surged down Bay St.toward the mill, the militia commander ordered them to disperse. At a distance of 200 yards, it is doubtful that the marchers heard him above their own noise. When they continued to advance, the commander ordered his troops to open fire. At least seven people fell dead or dying, including a 12-year-old schoolboy and a retired mill worker who was watching the commotion from his backyard. The rest of the crowd beat a hasty retreat to the city. Reactions to the incident varied wildly. Most Milwaukeeans were appalled by the carnage, but many considered the militia’s actions justified. “I seen my duty and 1 done it,” crowed Gov. Rusk, staking his position as a champion of law and order. Others took the shootings as chilling evidence that industrial property was valued more highly than industrial workers. The Bay View incident ended, for the time being, all efforts to institute the eight-hour day, but it also galvanized Milwaukee’s workers. In the fall elections of 1886, the labor-oriented People’s Party elected a congressman, several state legislators and an entire slate of county officials. Although their triumph was only temporary, it was the first tremor in a political upheaval that carried a socialist, Emil Seidel, into the mayor’s office in 1910. John Gurda is a Milwaukee writer and historian.