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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Fighting for Workers' Rights: The Bay View Massacre

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Imagine returning home from work dirty, sore and exhausted after a 15-hour day. That's how it went after the Industrial Revolution in the United States. Men, women and children worked long days—sometimes every day of the week—to make ends meet. Many Americans worked in mills, tanneries and factories in terrible conditions, often for little pay. Tensions eventually arose, and workers began to organize, demanding better conditions and pay.

An official historical marker memorializing a fatal event in the movement for workers' rights stands on the corner of the intersection of Russell Avenue and Superior Avenue in Milwaukee. Workers were striking for the right to an eight-hour workday, and later the event turned violent. The Bay View Massacre occurred on May 5, 1886, at the Milwaukee Iron Co.'s Rolling Mills plant and resulted in the death of seven individuals.

Two days before the strikes began at the Rolling Mills plant, Milwaukee factories shut down due to massive worker strikes. Rolling Mills was the only plant in the area that was not shut down due to strikes. However, a large group of concerned citizens marched to the mill in protest. Perceiving potential problems with this strike and acting on pressure to end it by factory owners, Wisconsin Gov. Jeremiah Rusk called out the state militia.

The state militia at this time consisted of two groups, the Lincoln Guard and the Kosciusko Guard. Upon arrival of the Lincoln Guard, militia members placed themselves between the strikers and the building, per instructions from the governor. The militiamen were ordered to shoot anyone who attempted to enter the building. Rocks were thrown at the guardsmen, and tensions quickly rose.

The next day, the second state militia, the Kosciusko Guard, arrived as backup. Attempts at negotiations between the two groups failed. On May 4, the strikers asked the representatives at the plant to phone the headquarters in Chicago to report their request for an eight-hour workday. But the strikers' request was denied. The upset strikers decided to stay and sleep on the grounds overnight.

On the morning of May 5, strikers headed for the factory building again. This time their arrival was met with more resistance. The militiamen, following the governor's orders to shoot those who attempted to enter the facility, opened fire on the crowd, killing seven and wounding many others. After shots were fired, many people fled. Some workers were sent to jail and many did not return. The governor refused to negotiate with the strikers and kept the militia at the Mill until the strikes stopped and the workers returned.

The next year the governor passed a law in response to the labor strikes. This law, passed by the state Legislature, explicitly "prohibited actions for the purpose of injuring another in his business." The fight for labor rights at the Milwaukee Iron Co. would soon end, but that fatal day would be marked in Wisconsin history as the day of the Bay View Massacre. 

Image: Wisconsin historical marker on Superior and Russell avenues in Bay View


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