Even the chilled, brisk wind off Lake Michigan was not enough to cool down the spirit of the more than 200 who attended the 132nd Anniversary Commemoration of the Bay View Tragedy to pay homage to seven who gave their lives in the quest to establish the eight-hour-day.
The ceremony that has been sponsored annually by the Wisconsin Labor History Society since 1986 recalls the May 5, 1886 shooting of the seven by the State Militia seeking to halt a march of some 1500 workers toward the giant Bay View Rolling Mills plant located on the shoreline of the Lake. It would become the state’s bloodiest labor incident in history.
“While we want to remember their deaths, we need to celebrate their courage,” said John Schneider, prominent Milwaukee actor and director, who narrated a re-enactment of the 1886 incident. “Their deaths
were not in vain. They won; the movement won.”
Within 10 months, he said in completing his narration, the Milwaukee City Council was voted out and in the ensuing years the incident would assist in spurring on the development of the Progressive movement in Wisconsin, being many reforms to better the lives of working people.
Now, 132 years later, the eight-hour-day is still an issue, Milwaukee Area Labor Council President Pam Fendt reminded the audience. “How many of us work more than 40 hours a week and still bring work home?” she asked, particularly singling out teachers and nurses. She quota a New York Times article that said many are working sixty hours a week.
In addition, workers suffer from the imbalance in pay has continued to grow so that the average CEO makes 271 times that of an average worker, she said. Meanwhile, in recent years productivity has increased by 74%, while worker pay has gone up but 13%.
Fendt urged the labor movement to redouble efforts to bring change, particularly through organizing, noting that the AFL-CIO at the national, state and local levers is committed to providing strong support in building the union movement.
“I see hope out there,” she said. “I see leaders who want to make Milwaukee again a great union town.”
Picking up the organizing theme, Kristin Fecteau, an apprentice electrician and member of IBEW Local 494, said every member must be an organizer, taking every chance to engage co-workers, friends, neighbors and others in discussions about unions. This is an important way in which to combat negative beliefs about unions, she said. Unionists also can’t be complacent, she said, calling attention to a union election that was lost by a few votes because many members failed to show up to cast ballots.
Her comments ended on a stirring plea: “Be proud. Be committed. Be productive and Be Union!
This year’s program was emceed by Anita Zeidler, a UWM retiree and an AFT member, whose role in many past commemorations involved laying of a memorial wreath at the foot of the state historical mark at the site of the event. (S. Superior St. and E. Russell Ave., on the lakefront in Milwaukee’s Bay View area.) Her late father, Frank, was Socialist mayor of Milwaukee from 1948 to 1960 and was part of the planning committee and a regular speaker at the event from its founding in 1986 to his death in 2006.
Candice Owley, president of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals-AFT, chaired this year’s event, replacing Ken Germanson who had headed the planning committee for many years. As was the custom at past events, Owley introduced the following elected political leaders who were present, including: State Representatives Christine Sinicki, Fred Kessler and Jonathan Brostoff; County Supervisors Marina Dimitrijevic, Jason Haas and Steve Shea; State Senator Chris Larson County; Alderman Tony Zeilinski; Cudahy Alderman; District Attorney John Chisholm, and Clerk of Milwaukee County Circuit Court John Barrett, and. State Representative Daniel Riemer, an annual attendee, and his Wife, Milwaukee School Board Member Paula Phillips, were unable to attend since they were scheduled to be at a birthing class for the forthcoming birth of their child.
The dramatic re-enactment has been performed at the event since 2011 and this year was produced by Barbara Leigh, former director of the Milwaukee Public Theatre, with direction by John Schneider, veteran Milwaukee actor, producer and director. Popular Milwaukee drummer Jahmes Finlayson provided accompaniment while Craig Siemsen, retired MPS teacher and union member, led the crowd in singing “Ghosts of Bay View,” a tradition at the event, and “Solidarity Forever.” The “Ghosts” song was composed by the late Milwaukee folksinger Larry Penn and has been sung at every event since its founding in 1986.
The sound system, which helps to amplify the event so that it can be heard over traffic and occasional overflying aircraft, was provided by CWA Local 4603 Retiree Rich Hinderholtz.