Neither clouds, chilly winds off Lake Michigan nor the threat of rain could still the inspiration that came from the 130th Anniversary Commemoration of the Bay View Tragedy held Sunday, May 1. Some 200 persons — fewer numbers than in recent years likely due to the forbidding weather — gathered around the State Historical Marker in Milwaukee for the hour-long event that honored the seven who were killed by the state militia while engaging in a march for the eight-hour day on May 5, 1886.
Newspaper reports of that date in 1886 related that much warmer and beautiful weather faced the 1500 workers and others who formed the march toward the huge complex of the North Chicago Rolling Mills. The effort ended when the state militia fired their deadly bullets. It was Wisconsin’s bloodiest labor incident.
For thirty years, the Wisconsin Labor History Society has held a commemoration program at the marker site to remember the incident. As has been the practice in recent years, the Milwaukee Public Theatre, including puppets from the Milwaukee Puppet and Mask Theatre and Acacia Costumes, performed in a dramatic re-enactment that charged the audience with emotion.
Candice Owley, president of the Wisconsin Nurses and Health Professionals union, opened the event, noting that it would be wrong to forget the incidents of that day. She said the 1886 incident marked a “new struggle for workers to build a humane workplace and a more just society.”
Citing Wisconsin’s recent anti-worker legislative actions she said, “The struggle for justice continues to this very day, 130 years later, showing that the struggle is never-ending and ongoing.” She commented on the “unbelievably difficult time for working people in these last few years,” particularly in Wisconsin with the passage of Act 10 that robbed public employees of the right to collectively bargain, the enactment of laws that banned union shop clauses and the new restrictions on prevailing wages for construction workers.
Professor William Jones, of UW-Madison, in remarks, said there are three important reasons to remember what happened here in 1886: who were the people who marched, what did they want and what did they accomplish. He said:
“Particularly what we need to remember today is that they were immigrants. When they were marching and shouting out slogans, those slogans were not shouted out in English, they were shouted out in German and Polish. Today they were would be shouted out in Spanish.”
As far as what the marchers were seeking, Jones referred to the slogan that was shouted “Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep and eight hours for what we will.” He said the truly important part of that slogan referred to the workers’ demand for eight hours of free time, “to do what we will.”
The key part was that only eight hours were for work and that workers are here on this earth to do many other things, he said. The Knights of Labor, the principal union in those days, felt the eight hours of free time was critical since it would be a time for workers, Jones said, “to improve ourselves, to improve our families and our communities, whether that meant going to church, or to a union meeting, or reading, or going to school, or just spending time with our friends and our families.”
Answering the question of what did the movement accomplish, Jones said in many ways it was a failure, collapsing in a “horrific wave of repression that began with shots” of the state militia in Bay View in 1886. He said Richard Ely, a famed University of Wisconsin professor, called it a “wave of police terrorism,” in which workers were regularly slaughtered for asserting their rights and employers posted signs that said, “Knights of Labor Don’t Apply.” (He noted that Professor Ely was nearly fired from his job for merely teaching about the union movement during that period.)
Yet, the failure of the eight-hour-day movement of 1886, particularly after incidents in Bay View and a day earlier in the Chicago Haymarket Affair, was not the end, Jones continued. Workers turned to politics to effect change and to bring progressive government to power that would rule Milwaukee over the next 100 years. The new worker-supported state and local leaders accomplished many of the improvements that are being torn down today, such as the establishment of the right to bargain collectively and the workers’ compensation system, he added:
“We can take inspiration from the people who saw their movement destroyed and lived through their own cold times, who went on to transform the city, and to transform the state, and eventually transform the country that we all now live in.”
“We can take inspiration that whatever stands in our way, if we stand together, we can move forward.”