Monday, May 05, 2008

May 5

On 5 May 1886 -- mere hours after the infamous Haymarket bombing in Chicago -- Wisconsin state militiamen fired on a group of striking mill workers in Bay View, just outside Milwaukee. Four died on the spot, with three more succumbing to their wounds over the next few days.

Earlier that week, at least 14,000 Polish and German laborers had struck against the city’s industrial base, and by May 3 had managed to shut down every factory in Milwaukee with the exception of the North Chicago Rolling Mills Steel Foundry. In doing so, they joined hundreds of thousands of workers across the nation in calling for a shorter workday without reductions in pay. At the time, the mill workers in Milwaukee endured 12-hour shifts for wages that hovered around $1.25 per day; while the city had an eight-hour law on the books, it was weak and carried no provisions for enforcement.

As the strike gathered strength, several industries conceded to the workers’ demands. Bricklayers and masons received 20 percent wage increases; one of the city’s breweries offered its workers an eight hour day along with better pay. The city’s leaders feared their world was being turned upside down.

Wisconsin’s governor, “Uncle” Jeremiah Rusk, had already put the state guard on alert in preparation for the week’s events, and on May 3 he issued a formal order mobilizing them in defense of private property. The Kosciuko Militia -- made up of Polish businessmen -- was among the units that were assigned to guard the Bay View complex. The next day, a mass of strikers was turned back by several hundred militiamen, who fired over their heads as they gathered at St. Stanislaus Church. When news of the Chicago bombing reached Milwaukee late in the evening of May 4, Gov. Rusk issued “shoot to kill” orders, which the militia put to use the next morning against a wall of unarmed protestors as they approached the gates of the foundry.

No one was ever prosecuted for the seven deaths, and Governor Rusk was deluged with congratulatory telegrams from appreciative business owners and Wisconsinites who believed the labor radicals had received their due. Polish workers in particular were assigned the role of scapegoat for the entire strike; employers fired them by the thousands in subsequent weeks. As for the Polish businessmen who comprised the Kosciuko militia, they were rewarded by the mill’s owners, who offered them cash bonuses for their role in defending the Bay View mill.

Later that year, socialists and labor advocates -- mobilized by the Bay View Massacre -- swept the municipal elections in Milwaukee.