The last few years there have not been very many labor union strikes. It’s been as if the labor union movement has accomplished it’s mission and isn’t needed any more. Sadly, that’s not really true, other events have taken place that have made job actions increasingly difficult — not the least of which is the difficulty of finding health insurance. Walking a picket line when doing so might lose you your health insurance and make you ineligible for coverage of pre-existing conditions is a mighty big stick to hold over the heads of workers.
Because I live near Milwaukee, I’m never far from the site of the Bayview Massacre. Nowadays we run the two words together and it’s no longer Bay View. But the reality of the event comes back to me every time I visit our daughter, who lives in that part of the Milwaukee metro area. In case you forgot, or never knew about it, this is what happened.
I wanted to write about this because of the ways in which power corrupts. In 2019 we might think that a dispute about working conditions ought never to cause the death of more than half a dozen workers. But power doesn’t like to give in. The rich don’t like to be told what to do and in 1886 when times were a lot harder than they are in 2019 the situation got out of hand. The military was called in to quash this strike and “the guardsmen’s orders were that, if the strikers were to enter the Mills, they should shoot to kill. But when the captain received the order it had a different meaning: he ordered his men to pick out a man and shoot to kill when the order was given.” This is how simple goes from being simple, to being very complicated. It’s the same thing that happened much more recently at Kent State university when students were shot — murdered. And it will happen again when men armed with guns over step their bounds. We see it in cities and suburbs around the country when cops kill blacks. Guns and power are a dangerous combination. But sometimes the cause is important enough to stand up. And men like these have made life better for us all. If only we don’t forget what they stood up for.
The Bay View massacre (sometimes also referred to as the Bay View Tragedy) was the result of a strike held on May 4, 1886, by 7,000 building-trades workers and 5,000 Polish laborers who had organized at St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to strike against their employers, demanding the enforcement of an eight-hour work day. A few days earlier, on May 1, a peaceful demonstration had been held in nearby Chicago, with similar demands.
By Monday, May 3, the number of participants had increased to over 14,000 workers that gathered at the Milwaukee Iron Company rolling mill in Bay View. They were met by 250 National Guardsmen under order from Republican Governor Jeremiah M. Rusk. The strikers had shut down every business in the city except the North Chicago Rolling Mills in Bay View. The guardsmen’s orders were that, if the strikers were to enter the Mills, they should shoot to kill. But when the captain received the order it had a different meaning: he ordered his men to pick out a man and shoot to kill when the order was given. Workers camped in the nearby fields and the Kosciuszko Militia arrived by May 4. Early the next day the crowd, which by this time contained children, approached the mill and were fired upon. Seven people died as a result, including a thirteen-year-old boy. Several more were injured during the protest. Several contradictory newspaper accounts described other possible casualties, but the count of seven deaths is substantiated by specific names (Frank Kunkel, Frank Nowarczyk, John Marsh, Robert Erdman, Johann Zazka, Martin Jankowiak, and Michael Ruchalski).
Since 1986, members of the Bay View Historical Society, the Wisconsin Labor History Society, and other community groups have held a commemorative event to honor the memories of those killed during the incident. The event is held every year on the first Sunday in May at 3pm, at the State Historical Marker site at the intersection of Superior Street and Russell Avenue, within view of the former rolling mill location.