Labor History


By Bill Usher, MAL Legislative Committee

This month in Labor History will be a regular feature on the Minneapolis Area Local web-sight. Some of you might wonder why we have included a feature like this on our web-sight. The reasons are as follows:

First and foremost, we want to inform and/or remind our members and other visitors of the terrible and amazing sacrifices early labor activists endured just to achieve living wages and better working conditions. These sacrifices and loss of life are what enable us to live in relative comfort with decent wages, benefits, and pensions.

Secondly we want every one of our members to realize that they are not just APWU members. You are part of a nation wide brotherhood of Union Laborers. All the Unions need to stand together now to face the challenges that especially lie ahead with the attacks on labor coming from our present administration in Washington.

[click here to read past articles]

The Massacre at Bay View

We want to feel the sunshine and we want to smell the flowers

We are sure that God has willed it and we mean to have eight hours

Weíre summoning our forces from the shipyards, shop, and mill.

Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what we will

This famous Labor song was the rallying cry for a bitter struggle that happened in the late 1800's in our sister state Wisconsin. Something we all grew up taking for granted, the eight- hour workday was not given to the American Labor force without a prolonged and often vicious struggle. The eight hour leagues fought this struggle for decades before achieving this simple goal. This story is dedicated to those who died fighting in this conflict. People who just wanted to have a little free time for their families or enjoying life a little. This is the story of citizens who were forced to work up to 16 hours a day with no overtime pay, no benefits, and no vacations.

This particular battle took place in Milwaukee Wisconsin. It took place at the height of worker discontent when organizations called the eight hour leagues were fighting to reduce work hours for American workers. Two Labor groups were involved in this struggle. Some Milwaukee activists had formed a local Eight Hour League. This movement started in San Francisco after the Civil War and eventually spread nation wide. The other group was the Milwaukee Central Labor Union Council affiliated with the Federation of the Organized Trades and Labor Unions. This was the precursor of the as yet uncreated American Federation of Labor.

The Federation had waged a two- year campaign to force factories and businessís to reduce hours to eight for a work day with no change in wages. This struggle culminated in the tragic loss of life at the famous Haymarket Bombing incident. In Chicago on the 3rd of May four workers were shot by police and the next day an anarchist threw a bomb into a crowd of police killing several officers and wounding many more.

News of this traveled to Milwaukee making the situation there much tenser. So on one side you had the brewery, mill, and factory owners and on the other thousands of frustrated workers who were sick and tired of working 10 to 16 hour days for about a dollar a day. Many workers had to endure the sight of their wives and children working these long hours in the same plants. Many factory workers were immigrants and the general public was often unsympathetic to their plight. Much of the citizenry were shop owners, craftsmen, small businessmen who were continually being lied to by local papers which were owned by local rich men. Their message was that the labor movement was out to take over the country and was only interested in revolution, not in helping the working class.

On May second the protests started. About 25 thousand curious and supportive people watched the swelling ranks of the protestorís parade by. The group of marchers went from Factory to Factory finding more marchers everywhere they went. This soon became a City wide strike. Eventually nearly every factory in Milwaukee was shut down because the workers were all out marching..Of course the alarmed business owners are trying to get the Governor, Jeremiah Rusk, to call out the state militia to quell the protests and send everyone back to work. In spite of the shutdowns the owners still refused to even discuss a reduction in hours.

The strikers numbered about 12,000 and eventually about 1500 ended up at the North Chicago Railroad Rolling Mills Steel Foundry. The foundry management tried to disperse them with water hoses. This did not work and once again the owner called on Governor Rusk to call out the State Militia and this time he complied. It is the morning of May 4th. Part of the Militia is the Kosciuko Guard. This Militia is made up of mostly Polish businessmen. They were nervous to begin with because the Polish protestors knew all of them. The workers cursed them in their own language and the atmosphere became very explosive.

By this time the Governor and other leaders had heard about the police killed in the Chicago Haymarket Bombing. Business leaders were in his ear about a revolution beginning and he now ordered his militia to shoot to kill if strikers tried to force their way into the Rolling Mills Plant. On morning of the fifth of May the workers again marched on the Foundry. They get to about 200 yards of the plant and the Militia Captain ordered them to halt. The marchers still moved forward and the Militia captain ordered the Militia to open fire. When the smoke cleared seven motionless bodies lay on the ground. Seven people trying to improve theirs lives were needlessly gunned down in cold blood.

Among the dead were a retired worker out feeding his chickens who was hit by a stray bullet and a thirteen-year old boy who had tagged along with the marchers to see what was going on. An inquiry by local officials eventually praised the militia for only firing one volley into the crowd. About twenty polish labor leaders were sentenced to hard labor for up to nine months. The Milwaukee Journal reported 6 protestors killed and the Milwaukee Free Press reported that only one marcher was killed.

So again the only people punished were the ones being persecuted by management from the beginning. A wage of a dollar a day taking into account inflation would amount to about three dollars an hour at this time. Imagine trying to survive on that kind of wage. This is why children were forced to work in factories and mines. The wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few very rich people who had no time for the wants of the working class.

Made w/ Golive

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