The Bay View Tragedy of May 5th, 1886
A look at Milwaukee's 8 hour march, killings from the workers' point of view
by Howard Zinn
When I began to write history, I wanted to write history from the point of view of people whose point of view had been left out of history. As I myself learned history, right through school up to graduate school, it was mostly history from the top...it was mostly history of presidents, the Age of Lincoln, the Age of Jackson, the Age of Roosevelt and the story of America's industrial progress as told through the story of Carnegie and Morgan and Rockefeller and Vanderbilt and so on. I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of working people, from the standpoint of black people.
When I was approached and told about what happened at Bay View, I didn't know about it. I didn't know about the general strike in Oshkosh that took place 100 years ago.
Consider the conditions that workers endured over 100 yares ago, such as the 16- hour days. That was about the age of free enterprise. You hear much about the age of free enterprise and that we mustn't interfere with workings of the free enterprise system.
When they're talking about the free market, they're talking about the market where people are helpless before those who run the corporations and those who make the decisions. And that's why people worked 16 hours a day and why people worked for virtually nothing, because that was the free market. There was no interference...the government did not interfere. You didn't have wage-hour laws, you didn't have Social Security, you didn't have unemployment compensation, workers compensation, you didn't have the Wagner Act. you didn't have anything like that. You had the wonderful operation of the free market which enabled corporations to do whatever they wanted, to work these people with nobody interfering.
Those conditions produced the movement for the eight- hour day.
And so the movement for the 8-hour day developed in the middle of the 19th century. In the 1870's, a labor newspaper, the Labor standard in Patterson N.J., you might say, intiated the 8-hour day and published the eight-hour day song which had these lines:
We want to see the sunshine
and we want to smell the flowers
We are sure god has willed it
and we mean to have eight hours
We're summoning our forces
from the shipyards, shop and mill
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest
and eight hours for what we will
In 1884, the Knights of Labor ( then the largest labor organization in the nation) said that by May1st, 1886, we want campaigns for the eight-hour day begun all over the country by working people.
Chicago was the center of agitation for the eight-hour day. Milwaukee was the second place in the extent of organizing people, demonstrations, strikes for the eight-hour day. On May 1st, in various parts of the country, 190,000 people went on strike for the eight-hour day. And, 150,000 people got the eight-hour day just by threatening to strike.
On may 3rd something happened in Chicago which was to going to have a very dramatic effect on the whole country. There was a strike at the McCormick Harvesting Works, where there was a picketline. The police attacked the picketline and they killed four strikers.
Chicago was a place you couldn't get away with that. In Chicago, there was not just a strong labor movement, there was strong group of radicals. These were anarchists, a number of them from Germany. The revolution of 1848 in Germany, which was defeated, sent a lot of refugees from that revolution to this country.
There was this group of working people and they put out a circular calling working people to arms. They called a meeting for May 4th in Haymarket Square.
It was peaceful meeting, but it didn't matter because a great squad of police were called out and as the meeting was beginning to end and it was beginning to rain, the police attacked. As they moved to attack, a bomb exploded wounding many of them and seven policemen died. It was never found out who threw the bomb. Did an anarchist do it? Possibly. Did a police provocateur do it? Possibly.
They picked up eight known anarchists in Chicago...and they were put on trial charged with conspiracy to murder. The jury was stacked. In fact, one of the people who who ended up on the jury was a relative of one of the policemen who was killed. They could produce noevidence that the accused had anything to do with the bombs. They could produce only evidence they they had anarchist ideas. In a sense they were sentenced to death for their ideals.
All over the world protests came about this trial. Working people in various parts of the came to their defense. Four of them were executed. The next governor, John Peter Altgeld, knew that if he pardoned them he would lose the next election,but Altgeld went through the record and he said this was "judicial murder" and he pardoned them and he wasn't re-elected.
The day after the Haymarket Affair was when the Bay view massacre took place. On May 2nd there was huge eight-hour day parade of German and Polish people to a pcinic grounds;on May3rd, thousands in the breweries and the building trades went on strikes and they marched around from factory to factory and closed the places. The Milwauke Journal wrote of "foreign agitators, especially those from poland."
There was a Polish Assembly of the Knights of Labor and they were particularly militant. on May 4th the marchers assembled at the Polish Church (then as now St. Stanislaus at S. 5th and Mitchell sts.) and 3,000 of them marched to the Bay View Rolling Mill. The militia had been called out. Nothing happened that day. The Militia fire into the air.
But the next day, the mayor issued a proclamation that citizens are not to gather in crowds. The state militia showed up as the marchers approached the mill. Apparently the general of the troops called up the Gover. Jeremiah Rusk and asked what he should do, and the governor said, "fire".
When the crowd of 1,500 appraoched the mill, there was an order to halt, but nobody heard the order; the troops fired into the crowd, killing seven people.
The coroner's jury didn't find anybody guilty;they praised the guard for acting in a humane manner in ordering the firing to cease after the first volley. Nobody who fired the shots were indicted but 50 of the strikers were sentenced to six to nine months of hard labor for riots and conspiracy.
you could say that it was defeat. The words "defeat" and "victory" cannot be pronounced immediately after any historic event. Things don't happen that way in history. Movements get defeated, but they come back; the eight-hour movement came back;the people of Milwaukee came back. Not long after, a Socialist mayor was elected.
The union movement grew; the populist movement of farmers grew. There was a wave of labor strikes in this country in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries which was unequalled in any country in the world.
Many of the reforms of the 20th Century were the result of the power of that movement and the Socialist movement, of the IWW and the struggles of those years, even though many of those strikes were defeated at the moment.
If there's anything important to remember about the Bay View Massacre is that no defeat lasts if what is behind it is a struggle for justice, and a moral cause. The story of social struggle throughout history is that defeats take place, but people persist. If there's fundamental grievance that remains, people may remain quiet for a while, but people ultimately will rise up against it and things will change.
That's something to keep in mind today when our country has serious problems to solve. What happened here in Bay View is a reminder that struggle continues and all of us have a responsiblity to keep it up.