Re-enactment of Bay View Tragedy shows the past matters today

It was an usually warm day on May 5, 1886 when some 1500 workers and supporters marched toward the huge rolling mills on Milwaukee’s lakefront in a campaign for the eight-hour workday.  That march was cut short by the bullets from the guns of state militia troops who fired into the crowd, killing seven.

A large puppet representing Gov. Jeremiah P. Rusk

It was the bloodiest event in Wisconsin labor history and for the last 33 years has been commemorated as the Bay View Tragedy in an outdoor event on the first Sunday of May – a ceremony to remember the struggles of the past and to provide understanding for the continued challenges facing workers seeking a safe, just and rewarding life.

A labor leader in the form of a puppet join 8-hour-day marchers re-enacting Bay View Tragedy of May 5, 1886.

Such warm, sunny days are rare in early May along the shores of frigid Lake Michigan, thus it was fitting that the 133rd Anniversary Commemoration of the Bay View Tragedy on May 5, 2019 was likely a replica – weatherwise – of that tragic day in 1886.  Temperatures rose above 70, the crowd of some 300 was bathed in sunlight and warmed by mild breezes came from the west.

The tragic episode was re-enacted by a crew of actors, volunteers and puppeteers carrying two larger-than-life replicas of an 1886 labor leader and of then Wisconsin governor Jeremiah P. Rusk, who ordered the shooting of the strikers.  The words the two might have said in 1886 were restated by two actors, accompanied by cheers for the labor speaker and jeers for Gov. Rusk.  A small crew of volunteers – imitating the marchers of the past – fell when fired upon by the unseen militia troops, their “gunshots” heard from the drums of Jahmes Finlayson.

The names of the deceased workers were read as a memorial wreath was laid at the foot of the State Historical Marker site, located in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood where the massacre occurred.  This year, the wreath was placed by Michael and Dorothy Zeidler, the son and daughter of the late Frank P. Zeidler, Milwaukee’s last socialist mayor.  Their sister, Anita, who had been part of the Tragedy event’s planning committee for many years and who died at last year’s LaborFest was honored with a moment of silence.

“The six men and boy did not die in vain,” Jon Shelton, professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at University of Wisconsin – Green Bay, said in remarks, referring to the victims in the 1886 massacre.  “They were part of a movement – the same movement we are involved in today.”

Speaking about current struggles, Shelton encouraged the audience by noting, “We didn’t start this class warfare, but we will win.”

While the strikes of 1886 in Milwaukee ended in tragedy, he said they were important in that they brought about greater political activity among working people, leading to the election of pro-worker leaders in the city and the creation of Milwaukee’s Socialist party.  “You can find the very roots of Wisconsin’s strong Socialist traditions in the fight at Bay View,” he said.

“Bay View was not a tragedy; it was a call to action,” Shelton said.  “We are all part of the same struggle, a struggle that transcends time, against the same type of economic royalists who seek to control us.”

The seven victims at Bay View “died in the fight for basic human dignity . . . for what was their basic right to be seen as men.”

Employers, Shelton continued, treated workers as something to be “employed,” that is, “to use.”  He said, the men who employed them viewed the workers as a tool to enrich themselves and in using up these men until they were physically incapable of working . . . “so that they could make more in profits.”

Basically, the workers in 1886 were marching for the cause of gaining “eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep and eight hours for what we will.”