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Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

Bay View Massacre

Laborers with an iron will

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Seated in an ergonomic chair in a comfortable, temperature-controlled office in the cozy embrace of today’s regulations from the U.S. Department of Labor, it’s easy to lose sight of just how bad our forebears had it. Here in Milwaukee, where industry was king and jobs in the tanneries, meatpacking facilities and mills were abundant, displaced immigrants from Europe lined up for the available work. They soon found, however, that long hours and low wages weren’t the only disadvantages of the factory system: The working conditions were horrific.

In 1866, a Detroit capitalist named Eber Ward launched the Milwaukee Iron Co. in Bay View. Having already established works in Detroit and Chicago, Ward chose Milwaukee because of its short distance from Iron Ridge in nearby Dodge County, where there were beds of iron ore that, when mixed with softer Lake Superior varieties, yielded an iron of unusual strength. The site on the shores of Lake Michigan could accommodate ships carrying coal from Pennsylvania and ore from Michigan. More importantly, Milwaukee was the nerve center of a growing regional railroad that demanded railroad rails.

Only four years after production began at the mill, it was the second-largest manufacturer of rails in the nation, and its labor force exceeded 1,000 men. As John Gurda, author of Cream City Chronicles, paints it, the skilled workers who tended the massive blast furnaces routinely endured temperatures exceeding 160 degrees. Working bare-chested and wearing Turkish towels around their necks to soak up the sweat, they worked 12 hours a day, six days a week producing caldrons of liquid iron, without so much as a fan. They were paid $5 a day without benefits. The unskilled workers down the line who were rolling hot ingots into rails, or stacking them, earned only $1 or $2 for their 12-hour day.

When the Eight-Hour League movement swept the nation in 1886, Milwaukee’s work force was all ears. Most Milwaukee employers resisted the demand for a shorter day, especially without a cut in pay, setting off a string of strikes. On May 3, 1886, an unplanned general strike brought the entire city to a grinding halt. A tidal wave of factory workers surged through the Menomonee Valley, intent on shutting down any plants that were still open. One wouldn’t heel: the massive iron plant in suburban Bay View, then called the North Chicago Rolling Mill Co.

On May 4, nearly a thousand laborers, most of them Polish immigrants, met at St. Stanislaus Church to march on the lakeshore plant. The mill’s laborers walked out when the marchers arrived, but the skilled workers, who had just recently ended a long strike, continued to work. When the company showed no sign of closing the plant, the marchers sent a delegation inside to chat with the mill executives. Meanwhile, Gov. Jeremiah Rusk called on the state militia—as they began arriving at the mill, shortly after the workers, they were greeted with a storm of stones and garbage. When the meeting inside proved futile, the strikers warned that they would be returning.

The next morning, May 5, the Poles regrouped at St. Stanislaus. Lined four abreast and numbering 1,500, they marched to the mill. When Rusk was informed by telephone that a large crowd was headed toward Bay View, he allegedly said, “Very well, sir. Fire on them.” The captain of the Sheridan Guard, a primarily Irish militia company, ordered his troops: “Pick out your man, and kill him.” As the strikers turned south on Bay Street, the militia commander, Maj. George Traeumer, ordered them to disperse. From a distance of about 200 yards, it was doubtful the strikers saw him, let alone heard him. When they continued to advance, Traeumer ordered his troops to open fire.

The crowd simultaneously hit the ground when the bullets began to fly. When the militia ceased firing, the uninjured retreated, leaving at least five people dead or dying in the dirt road, including a 12-year-old boy and a retired millworker. The precise number of fatalities remains unclear. County death certificates say five, but published estimates place the number as high as nine. The Bay View Massacre ended the eight-hour campaign in Milwaukee for the time being, but it galvanized Milwaukee’s workers to elect a number of labor-oriented politicians to office.

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