An enthusiastic crowd of 300 at the 131st Anniversary Commemoration of the Bay View Tragedy cheered the stirring re-enactment of the May 5, 1886 event and the compelling words of speaker Luz Sosa.
The commemoration ceremony – which has become an annual event on the first Sunday of May since 1986 – is held to remember the 1886 incident in which seven persons were killed by bullets from the State Militia during a
peaceful march of workers seeking to establish the eight-hour day, long a goal of working people who then toiled 10, 12 and 14 hours for a six-day week.
The events leading up to the killings were staged by local acting groups, directed by John Schneider, a Milwaukee actor, director and educator, and produced by Barbara Leigh, longtime director of Milwaukee Public Theatre. Larger than life-sized puppets dramatized the words of then Gov. Jeremiah P. Rusk and of labor leaders of the day, including Paul Grottkau, bringing boos from the crowd to Rusk’s comments and cheers for the labor leaders’ words.
It was for the day’s speaker, Luz Sosa, of American Federation of Teachers Local 212 and an instructor at MATC, to bring the events of 131 years ago into perspective for workers of 2017. Today, she said, Americans work harder and have longer hours than any workers in the industrial democracies, averaging 47 hours a week. “Can you believe that?” she asked.
“So, the struggle of the eight-hour workday is here today. Right?” she asked.
Sosa told the crowd that she was born in Paraguay, spent her early years in Argentina and moved to the United States and Milwaukee at age 16, reminding the crowd that “just as many of those who died here I’m an immigrant . . . and today immigrants are being scapegoated.”
“There is a reason for that, because unity creates power,” she said, and corporate America knows if it can pit one ethnic group against another it can weaken workers’ power by destroying their unions. “Once we divide them, we can conquer them,” was the reasoning of the corporations, Sosa said.
Since the 1980s, she said, businesses have been successful in instilling in workers a feeling that it was better to be serving one’s own individual interests rather than the group as a whole. Sadly, many have bought into a belief that “I work harder than other workers,” thus weakening any interest in unifying.
The workers’ only answer, Sosa said, is that “to organize, to educate and to agitate.” She urged workers to unionize and to establish “one community” of workers.
Also, she said, “we need to vote.” The numbers are ridiculous when only 50% of citizens voted in the last Presidential election. And we need to elect “good people,” pointing out several politicians in the audience that she said were examples of the kind of officials that voters should elect. “We need more of them,” she said.
“We need to stop corporations from electing our politicians,” she said. “That needs to happen today.”
Sosa said that workers need to have the right to strike, something that was taken away from public employees in the legislation of 2011 that stripped collective bargaining rights of public sector unions.
“The change has to come from us,” she said. Workers must fight for their rights and for better conditions, but she said workers “need to come together and we need to say, ‘Enough is enough, enough is enough, enough is enough,” bring a huge cheer from the crowd.
As a result of a question asked at the event, State Rep. Fred Kessler, who is a member of the Board of the Wisconsin Historical Society, promised to pursue an effort to place the names of the seven who were killed in the massacre on the historical marker site in Bay View.
He was one of many officer holders who attended. Others included State Senator Chris Larson: State Representatives Christine Sinicki, Jonathan Brostoff, Dan Riemer and Evan Goyke; County Supervisors Marina Dimitrijevic and Jason Haas; Alderman Tony Zielinski and District Attorney John Chisholm.