Friday, October 24, 2014

Bay View Massacre
by Adam Wilhelm

MILWAUKEE -- This weekend people will gather at the corner of Russell and Superior to mark the 127th anniversary of the Bay View massacre, a bloody chapter in state history that helped define not only the modern labor movement, but also the city of Milwaukee.

In 1886, a massive industrial complex stood just south of what is now the Port of Milwaukee.  The North Chicago Rolling Mills foundry was huge even by Modern Standards, with some 1,500 workers, converting iron ore into steel for the nation's railroads.

"So this really was a company town, this is why Bay View exists," Milwaukee Historian John Gurda said.

It was mostly Polish immigrants working at the foundry, and the conditions were brutal, 10 to 12 hour days, 6 days a week, for a little more than a dollar a day.

"All the cards were in the employer's hands, so labor tried to organize to strike a better balance," Gurda said.

And by the spring of 1886, that effort had crystalized into a national campaign for an eight hour work day.

"The slogan was 8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, and 8 hours for what we will," Gurda said.

A general strike was called in Milwaukee on May 1st and by May 5th, the Rolling Mills Foundry was the only major factory still operating.  That morning, a crowd of several thousand striking workers marched on the plant in an effort to convince those inside to join them.  The governor at the time, Republican Jeremiah Rusk, responded by calling in the National Guard."

"He was a decorated civil war veteran, and someone who would not tolerate a threat to the established order...and when he heard a mob was marching down Bay Street, he pretty much said, `shoot to kill,' Gurda said.

When the shooting stopped, seven people lay dead, including a 12-year-old boy.

Despite the bloodshed, Rusk was celebrated by many as a national hero for saving Milwaukee from anarchy, others were horrified by the loss of life.

"This was not unlike Newtown, this was not unlike Columbine..this was people dying at the hands of their fellow citizens," Gurda said.

It was that sense of outrage that would eventually serve as an important catalyst for the budding labor movement.

"What it did was to galvanize the working class to say we're not going to be intimidated," Gurda said.

Today, the state and the times have both clearly changed.  In 2011, Governor Scott Walker's controversial Act 10 took away the right of most state workers to bargain collectively, and as the protests over that legislation played out in the Madison, local labor leaders conjured the ghosts of those slain workers at the Rolling Mills Foundry.

"We did think of this, we did think about Governor Rusk, because we also remember the first thing Governor Walker said was, if necessary he would call out the national guard," Gurda said.

Fortunately, that part of history did not repeat itself and Cochran hopes it won't have to for organized labor to rise again.

"Much like 127 years ago, I think when you really hurt people, very badly, they do organize, and they do come may take some time, but they do come back," Gurda said.

The 127th anniversary commemoration of the Bay View massacre will be held Sunday at 3:00 at the historical marker on Russell and Superior.  They will be re-enacting that day's events and the public is welcome.