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This Day in Labor History: May 5, 1886


On May 5, 1886, the Wisconsin National Guard opened fire on strikers in Milwaukee fighting for the 8-hour day, killing 7 workers. Coming a day after Haymarket and two days after the massacre of strikers in Chicago by police, what became known as the Bay View Massacre once again demonstrated the violence police and employers were willing to use to crush labor activism in the Gilded Age.

The mid-1880 was a heady time for American workers. It finally seemed like some victories were possible. The rise of the Knights of Labor provided a loose structure by which workers could organize. The 1885 Knights victory over the odious Jay Gould provided a rare win that could inspire workers around the country. But by the spring of 1886, the Knights wave was about to crash. Knights leader Terence Powderly had not intended to develop a mass organization and was highly uncomfortable with strikes. Then, the Great Southwest Strike against Gould failed and he crushed the Knights on his railroad. This happened just as the 8-hour day strikes that characterized that year hit their peak in late April and early May. In Chicago, the 8-hour struggle had led to major strikes, the police massacre of workers, and then the Haymarket bombing at an anarchist rally at least nominally dedicated to protesting that police brutality.

Workers in Milwaukee, as in Chicago, were ready to fight for the 8-hour day. These were two of the approximately 1,400 8-hour day strikes in the nation that year. The workforces were similar in the two cities. Both were involved in low-wage hard industrial labor and both had heavily immigrant populations. There were about 14,000 protestors at a May 5 rally. About 7,000 of them were building trades representatives, which were mostly native-born Americans or western European immigrants. They were joined by about 5,000 eastern European laborers. Largely Polish, they had organized through their church.

The role of the Catholic Church in American labor history is something scholars have certainly studied, but it’s not one that gets much play in the public memory of that history. It was a complicated relationship. Unlike many of the Protestant churches, there was plenty of room for labor organizing within the structure of the Catholic Church, so long as it was did not embrace radical politics that would threaten the church. So much later, when the Communist Party took power in the Soviet Union and that became the brand of radicalism that won out in the United States and across the western world, the Catholic Church would be as redbaiting as they come, because communism directly threatened it. But even then, CIO unions that were not run by communists might well be embraced by the Church, at least at the local level. In 1886 Milwaukee, that was very much true as well. The Polish workers organized at St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, with the approval of the priests there.

In the first days of May, the protests grew larger. On May 2, Milwaukee unions held a big rally with banners reading things such as The workmen do not beg, they demand”, “We do not work for King Mammon” and “Eight hours is our battlecry.” 25,000 people attended this parade, which was followed by a picnic and speeches about the horrors of the 10-hour day. It was after this parade that the Polish workers joined the protest. They began to march factory to factory and shut them down. When they reached the Edward P. Allis Reliant Steel Works, supervisors turned fire hoses on them, but the workers managed to overcome this and shut the factory down anyway.

By May 3, up to 14,000 protestors were gathering in front of the Milwaukee Iron Company’s rolling mill in the neighborhood of Bay View. But like most of the nation’s political ruling class, the governor of Wisconsin, Jeremiah Rusk, was fully in the pocket of the corporate class. He had no intention of allowing this sort of protest to go forward. On April 29, as this was growing, he began seeking a way to end the strikes. He mobilized the Wisconsin National Guard to serve as a private strikebreaking force for the companies. The rest of the city had been pretty much shut down. But this mill was still running. Rusk ordered the Guard that if the workers entered the mill, it was shoot to kill.

By May 4, the strikers were gathering in increasingly large numbers in front of the mill. The first unit to be called up was a Polish unit, known as the Kosciusko Guard, named after the Polish hero of the American Revolution. The workers insulted them, there was a brief conflict, a few shots were fired into the air, but nothing too violent took place. The next day, the crowd approached the mill and the Guard, this time a unit of native born Americans known as the Lincoln Guard, followed their orders. Seven people died, including a 13-year old boy: Frank Kunkel, Frank Nowarczyk, John Marsh, Robert Erdman, Johann Zazka, Martin Jankowiak, and Michael Ruchalski. This is the largest labor massacre in the history of Wisconsin.

The next day, the workers urged Rusk to stop the violence and pull back the military from what had been a strike marked by peaceful behavior from the strikes. Rusk refused. This was now a full-blown union-busting operation. He said the Guard would only leave when the workers returned to their jobs, presumably still with the 10-hour day, since why would an employer cave now that they had official state police forces happy to commit murder on their side? At this point, the workers basically gave up. There were a couple more murders of Polish workers, whose bodies were found by railroad tracks and who remain unidentified. Many of the Polish workers were fired in the ensuing days and replaced by supposedly more pliant nationalities. The Poles did have a measure of revenge, engaging in a boycott of businesses owned by the Kosciusko Guard, as Guard membership and emergence in the middle class was closely connected. At least twenty Polish workers were indicted for unlawful assembly. Several served short prison terms; one, Paul Grottkau, received a 9-month sentence, the harshest of all.

But Milwaukee also had a strong radical edge, with socialism very popular. The next municipal elections, in 1888, saw most of the city’s conservative politicians thrown out of office and replaced with socialists, the beginning of the most established socialist electoral success in American history, as mild a form of socialism as it was. Today, this event is still remembered in Milwaukee, replete with parades, speeches, memorials, and walks to replicate the march. But in the aftermath on the national scale, this all helped lead to the destruction of the Knights of Labor as a meaningful force in the labor movement.

This is the 311th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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