Today marks the 125th anniversary of the Bay View Massacre, wherein five day laborers, a 13-yr-old schoolboy, and a retired mill worker were mercilessly shot at and killed by the Wisconsin state militia for striking in protest for an 8 hour day. (Remember the 8-hr day and the 40-hr week? Remember not working overtime without being paid time and a half, or not having to come in the office Saturdays, or not checking your BlackBerry or smart phone? Remember Dolly Parton singing about “9 to 5”? This is all hard to believe now, I know, since it sets apart with seamless anachronism our current system, thanks to the present relationship between capital and labor never being a more perfect model of parody — I mean parity. Alas, it’s true: once upon a time the job creators were interested in nothing more than making a profit for themselves and their shareholders that never did trickle down to the actual workers who made everything profitable. Thank the two Almighty’s — God and the dollar — that today we’re flush with companies and corporations alike who practically compete over who’s more patriotic and supportive of working families!
It was not ever thus, however. So unlike our unimpeachable and loftily above reproach pillars of the local community and our commercial paragons of civic virtue today, companies and government of the 19th and early 20th Century were less sympathetic to the trials and tribulations of your average day laborer. This was nowhere better demonstrated than here in the Upper Midwest.
In the neighborhood of Bay View on Milwaukee’s south side there was a rolling mill at the Milwaukee Iron Company that formed metal and served as one of the area’s largest manufacturers (if not the largest). What had earlier begun on May 1st — May Day, the international day of labor — as a gathering of trades workers, who then were joined by primarily Polish immigrant laborers, amounted three days later as a formidable solidarity of some 15,000 who demanded an eight hour day. One needs to imagine the circumstances at the time. Most of the workers toiled in abominable circumstances for twelve hours a day, six days a week. At the mill the furnaces ran year-round at 160 degree temperatures. There was no OSHA, of course. Most workers got $1.25 a day. Adjusted for inflation, that would make a wage in today’s dollars of between $2.50 and $3.00 — not per hour, but for the whole damn day. Doing beastly work. You labored for no pension, no retirement. Certainly no workers comp or disability existed; if or when you were hurt on the job and could no longer perform it, there was no Family Medical Leave Act, no Medicaid to fall back on. You were of no value any longer to society, you were useless. You could only pray that that some charity would take pity on you.
The concept of a (not the) middle class didn’t even exist; you owned capital or were part of the working class, it was a dichotomy with no in between where all the rules, laws, and regulations were tilted in management’s favor. It was the gilded age of obscene boom (later to bust), of throbbing opulence on parade, of jaw-dropping inequity between the classes, the disparity of which had never been seen in this country and but for today’s sad redux — wherein a CEO’s salary is so far off the map of the average employee’s as to be astronomical — is otherwise incomparable to any other period in American history.
It was in this climate that a general strike had been declared in Milwaukee, which had the effect of essentially paralyzing the city. The very last company to remain open was the Bay View Rolling Mill. On May 4th, a delegation of workers demanded an eight-hour day without a reduction in wages, but the management balked. That very same night, a bomb went off in Chicago at Haymarket Square, leading to the deaths of several police officers. (No one knows for sure who threw the bomb — “anarchists” were charged, but it could just as easily have been an agent provocateur. What we do know is that the day began peacefully with workers protesting for an eight-hour day.) It is important to recognize that at the time Chicago and Milwaukee were the national centers of the budding labor movement. While there was nothing so instantaneous as the internet, of course, the telegraph (“the twitter of the 19th Century”) widely prevailed. And thus it was Milwaukee awoke that morning to news of Chicago exploding the night before. Tensions were running high as it was. Add to that a march of 15,000 people demanding the same thing their brothers and sisters down in shy-town had.
Under banners that declared “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will,” the crowd met at Saint Stanislaus Catholic Church and marched southeastward down along Kinnickinnic Avenue. (For an admittedly low-tech interactive map of the area, please see here.) By the time they reached Lincoln Avenue, they would be met by a phallanx of edgy state militiamen sent by Wisconsin Governor Jeremiah Rusk, a Republican (surprise, surprise…) under a shoot to kill order. An attachment of the militia was stationed inside the mill gates (right around where the Three Brothers restaurant is today on S. Saint Clair St). At a distance of roughly 200 yards, the commander of the militia ordered the crowd to halt. They of course could not hear the order – how could they have? Gov. Rusk, coincidentally in the city at the time (which was a strange occurrence, as the decorated Civil War veteran had come from an agriculturist background and was wary of the urban anomaly that Milwaukee was to the rest of Wisconsin; he never quite fit in and always was uncomfortable there), received a telephone call that the crowd had “disobeyed” the order to halt. Unequivocally and without the least hesitance, Governor Rusk gave the order to fire. The commander of the militia was even more forthright: “Pick out your man and kill him,” he said.
Not all were martyrs of the labor movement; amongst the seven dead were a 13-yr-old schoolboy and a retired mill worker watching the proceedings from his backyard. When is there not collateral damage? Those killed were Frank Kunkel, Frank Nowarczyk, John Marsh, Robert Erdman, Johann Zazka, Martin Jankowiak and Michael Ruchalski, all the more remembered today, 125 years later, in light of another anti-union, anti-progressive, anti-family, anti-labor Republican governor who did not run on an anti-worker platform (but has already gone on record invoking the state National Guard if need be). Different circumstances, to be sure, but the climate is comparable. (Like the old saw says, history rarely repeats itself; but it does rhyme.) The costuming and direction change to reflect contemporary fashion, and the dialogue has been shaped to fit our vernacular, but (to borrow from the Bard) all the world’s a stage, and in the end we’re mere actors reciting the same lines of a very old, very tired play. It’s up to us to see that it does not remain a tragedy.
(I am indebted to historian John Gurda, author of The Making of Milwaukee (which is a wonderfully enriching read) for much of the anecdotal information here. Incidentally, he will be present and speaking at the annual commemoration of the event at the intersection Superior Street and Russell Ave (map here).
P.S. ~ There is a rise-from-its-ashes aftermath to this story and its relationship to the history of the state. Within only weeks of this event in early May, workers in Milwaukee, undaunted and still determined, would go on to organize the People’s Party of Wisconsin. They were so successful and effective that come the fall election, just six months later, Labor won a majority of county offices and half of the city assembly; even a millwright from Bay View was sent to Congress. All we need to do today is recall a bunch of Republicans. And we can — because we simply must.