1886: The Bay View Massacre

Bay View Massacre memorial ceremony

The little known history of the massacre that occurred in Milwaukee, when 7,000 building workers and 5,000 Polish workers demanded the eight-hour work day.

The deadly stand-off between workers and the National Guard was the culmination of events that began on Saturday May 1, 1886.

A historical marker, pictured above, is located at Russel and Superior on Jones Island in Bay View. It commemorates the Bay View Massacre.

In early labour history before workers had fought for and won rights which we can now take for granted and as a result employers were working them ten hours a day, six days a week for ninety cents to one dollar and fifteen cents a day.

In Milwaukee, Groups, such as the Central Labor Union led by a Socialist Paul Grottkau and Catholic Church's Knights of Labor led by Robert Shilling, were formed to work for workers rights. One thing these groups were asking for was an eight hour workday with no reduction in pay. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions called for a great movement to win the 8-hour workday, which would climax on May 1, 1886.

Their plan was to spend two years urging all American employers to adopt a standard eight hour day, instead of the 10 to 12, even up to 16-hour days that were prevalent. After May 1 of 1886, all workers not yet on the 8-hour system were to cease work in a nationwide strike until their employer met the demand.

In Milwaukee they formed the eight hour league with the purpose of persuading the local government to adopt the eight hour workday. Milwaukee adopted it but the law had no penalty for employers whom did not comply. These groups were extremely upset with what was happening and planned a series of demonstrations on May 1 1886, when the law was to take effect.

There were over 1,600 such demonstrations across the country. These demonstrations led to serious trouble in Chicago's Haymarket Square, where on May 3rd Chicago police shot four workers to death and on May 4th someone unknown hurled a bomb into the police ranks killing several officers and wounding many more. There was further trouble at Rolling Mills in Milwaukee as a somewhat peaceful demonstration turned ugly. The following events led up to what is known today as the Massacre at Bay View.

May 2
The central labour union held a parade in Milwaukee. They marched with banners proclaiming slogans such as "The workmen do not beg, they demand", "We do not work for King Mammon" and "Eight hours is our battlecry".

The Milwaukee Journal billed it as the biggest event in city history. Wisconsin Governor Jeremiah Rusk was concerned about violence as strikes for the eight hour day were happening in the city. On April 29, he had put the state militia on standby.

The parade was watched by some 25,000 people and afterwards there was a picnic at the Milwaukee gardens with speakers denouncing the ten hour workday and voicing concerns over employers taking advantage of employees. They worked the crowd into a frenzy and before long everyone was chanting "eight hours."

Some members of the Knights of Labor were in attendance, who then went back to their headquarters at St. Stanislaus Church [Fifth and Mitchell] and spoke to some of their members.

Soon afterwards eight hundred started marching through the streets of Milwaukee chanting eight hours everyone must strike. Polish workers and tradesmen stopped their work and joined the march.

The first factory they came to was CM&STO Car Company who built railroad cars. After gaining recruits there they marched to Edward P. Allis Reliant Steel works. There the marchers were met by foreman and supervisors who tried to keep the marchers away with high pressure water hoses, but when the workers inside heard the chanting they stopped working and joined the march.

The marchers continued and got more recruits as they went along. Businesses were closing at an alarming rate due to labour shortages. The owners of CM&STO Car Company put a special train at Governor Jeremiah Rusks disposal. He rushed to Milwaukee and set up his office at the Plankinton Hotel where employers were asking Governor Rusk to call out the militia.

Rusk at this point saw no reason as he did not want to overstep the city. The workers continued their strike and got more recruits. The Milwaukee police trailed the crowd hoping there would be no violence. Governor Rusk was asked again by employers to call out the militia and again he said no.

May 3
The strikers by now had shut down every factory in Milwaukee except one, The North Chicago Railroad Rolling Mills Steel Foundry in Bay View. The chant then went out: "eight hours, everyone must strike, onto the mills!"

By this time the marchers were now numbering about 1,500. The marchers consisted of mainly Polish, some Germans and some Native Americans. Meanwhile, the number of strikers in the city numbered about twelve thousand.

Robert Shilling convinced Edward P. Allis to offer its workers the eight hour day with a pay increase. However, the workers were firm and refused to come back unless everyone got an eight hour day.

Both Shilling and Grottkau tried to talk the crowd into dispersing speaking their native languages, but the workers paid no heed. The English speaking reporters did not understand the languages and reported that they were inciting the crowd.

The town police followed the crowd into the Bay View Neighborhood late in the afternoon and called Governor Rusk to inform him that they did not have adequate forces if violence should occur. Rusk now called out the Militia, including the Kosciuko Militia made up mainly by Polish businessmen.

The strikers began negotiating with the supervisors at Rolling Mills for permission to enter the plant and talk to the workers. The plant manager refused and the crowd would not let him back inside until he accepted.

The Lincoln Guard arrived on the scene by special train and immediately helped him get back in. Then they formed a line between the strikers, who had begun throwing rocks, and the mills. Their orders were to protect the property at all costs.

Inside the Mills workers were arguing with each other over the eight hour work day. By nightfall there were over two hundred and fifty National Guardsmen at the mills, but the closest unit, The Kosciusko Guard, has not arrived yet.

May 4
Early in the morning the Kosciuko Guard arrived on foot, to jeers and name calling as strikers called them traitors to their fellow countrymen, while others were saying "join us or go home."

The strikers then formed a wave of people between the Kosciuko Guard and the Mills to stop them from joining the Lincoln Guard. There was not one person in the Kosciuko Guard who did not recognise someone striking.

Some strikers were throwing rocks at the Kosciuko Guard, several members in the rear of the guard got scared and fired in the air over the heads of the strikers and accidently hit the Mills.

After this incident, the strikers left the Guard alone and they proceeded into the Mills joining the other units called. The strikers then asked the supervisors to wire their headquarters in Chicago to start negotiations on an eight hour work day. They agreed but the answer from Chicago was fast and short "No".

At this point no one in the crowd knew about the ugly events unfolding in Chicago, where police had killed striking workers, and a bomb killed a police officer in Haymarket Square and wounded several others.

Governor Rusk was under considerable pressure from employers to stop the strike. Employers were saying that they would turn the entire society upside down and use the bombing in Haymarket Square as their proof that a revolution is under way.

Rusk called the Mills and told Captain Treaumer of the Lincoln Guard "if the strikers try to enter the mill, shoot to kill." Captain Treaumer then ordered his men to pick out a man, concentrate and kill him when the order is given. The strikers spent the night in open fields nearby while the Militia camps stayed at the Mills with sentries posted. During the night the sentries were shooting at anything that moved. A Navy tug brought provisions for the guard.

May 5
Around nine in the morning the strikers gathered again chanting "eight hours," a reporter who slept with them reported that it was odd that this was a group with no real leadership, but everyone was united in one single purpose.

The crowd approached the mill and faced the militia who were ready to fire. Before Treaumer knew the crowd's real intentions he ordered halt, but the strikers, who were about two hundred yards away, did not hear him.

He ordered the militia to fire. The crowd was in chaos as people fled the scene. The Milwaukee Journal reported that six were dead and at least eight more were expected to die within twenty four hours.

Meanwhile, some strikers called for revenge on the militia but to no avail. For several days afterwards a few strikers were still marching throughout the city but no one would join them. The dead included a thirteen year old boy who tagged along with the crowd wondering what was going on and a retired worker who lived in Bay View. He was struck down by a stray bullet, as he was getting water and was not part of the strike.

May 6
Leaders of labour groups met with Governor Rusk and asked him to pull back the Militia. They stated they would police their own actions, but Rusk refused until the strikers disbanded and went back to work.

Aftermath
While cleaning up the guardsmen found two more bodies along the railroad tracks. They were apparently Polish immigrants who were on strike. The two remain unidentified to this day. Everyone went back to work at ten hours a day.

On May 9, The Milwaukee Journal reported that Edward P. Allis was firing its Polish workers and replacing them with other nationalities because the Polish people were too radical.

Other companies follow suit for the same reason and for a time no Pole could find work in Milwaukee. Meanwhile the Polish section boycotted the businesses of the Kosciuko Guard members. The National Guard pulled out on May 13.

An inquiry of the events praised the guards' actions calling it an unpleasant duty, a humane gesture for firing only one volley and indicts at least twenty Poles for leading an unlawful assembly.

They were sentenced to hard labour ranging from six to nine months. Among these were Paul Grottkau who received the stiffest sentence of nine months. Robert Shilling was also indicted but his first trial ended up in a hung jury. While waiting for a second trial he formed the populace party, who elected a new district attorney. He was formally acquitted.

The Milwaukee Journal reported that businesses were giving cash to the Militia units for their actions at Rolling Mills. The Journal denounced the action saying they did what was expected of them and this was going to far. As a result of public sympathy for the strikes, the voters of Milwaukee county replaced the county and city governments with socialist representatives in 1888.

Since then Milwaukee has had at least three socialist mayors the last one serving from 1948-1960. Mayor Hoan served 24 years. Victor Berger served in congress for 29 years. In 1916, he was banned from his seat for his stand on U.S. involvement in World War I. He felt it was a Capitalist war to make money for big business. During his ban, he was re-elected. His Newspaper "The Leader" was called disloyal and the U.S. Postal Service was prohibited by the disloyalty laws to deliver it thru their system.

The grassroots eight hour movement was derailed and political parties came in to the fray, claiming to fight for the rights of workers, the eight hour workday and child labor laws. Among these were the Socialist Labor party, the Populace Party (led by Robert Shilling), and the Progressive Party founded by fighting Bob LaFollette who became Governor of Wisconsin. He then went on to Congress where he died still in office, in 1924 after a close bid for president. His son took over his office and held it until 1948 when the Progressive Party folded.

The Knights of Labor were no longer recognised by the Catholic Church to preserve the Church's image. They joined with other Unions to form the American Federation of Labor. The Central Labor Union also joined with other unions and call themselves the Congress of Industrial Organization. Several years later the two major Unions merge calling themselves the AFL-CIO.

The Dead
Frank Kunkel, Frank Nowarczyk, John Marsh, Robert Erdman, Johann Zazka, Martin Jankowiak, Michael Ruchalski, two unknown workers

Edited by libcom from an article by David Semenske