Milwaukee’s first large-scale labor action started on May 1, 1886, and culminated in violence and death four days later.
The demand for an eight-hour working day was the key issue. At the time a typical work day was 10 or 12 hours and, often, six days a week. By May 3rd, 10,000 Milwaukeeans were idle, either on strike or locked out by employers who shut down in the face of escalating violence.
On May 5th, 1,500 angry workers marched on the Bay View Rolling Mill. Six companies of state militiamen waited for them at the factory gates. When protesters ignored a command to halt the soldiers fired a single volley into the crowd, killing seven.
This tragic event has complex roots. As summed up in its slogan, “Eight hours work, eight hours rest, eight hours for what we will,” the goal was straightforward. However, most workers insisted companies continue to pay them the same amount while reducing the hours worked.
“This,” the Milwaukee Free Press noted, “rendered the struggle more difficult than it would otherwise have been.”
Some Milwaukee workers asked for – and received – eight hours of work for eight hours of pay. A few Milwaukee companies amicably compromised at nine hours pay for eight hours work. But of the 200 companies and workshops targeted in the dispute only 21 reached a settlement. The remaining companies and workers dug in their heels rather than make concessions.
On May 3rd, matters took an ugly turn. About 300 striking laborers, all carrying clubs and some armed with knives, descended on the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway shops at West Milwaukee, jostling and yelling at the workmen.
“When the crowd invaded the shops,” a witness told the Milwaukee Journal, “the machinists showed a disposition to resist the intruders, and for a time a fight was imminent. The foreman advised the employees to accept the situation quietly, and the works were shut down and the hands dispersed to their houses.”
A similarly violent confrontation briefly shut down Edward P. Allis’ massive Reliance Works, where foundry workers were on strike but company machinists remained on the job.
With tensions rising, Gov. Jeremiah Rusk ordered the state militia to protect against property damage. Soldiers fanned out across the city, including 150 soldiers sent to the Reliance Works. The Journal reported:
“Two hundred of E.P. Allis’ men went to work this morning, and as the news spread that the works were reopened, others began to began to come in. Many stayed out, however, because they were afraid they would be attacked while on their way home or later in the evening. The skilled mechanics are indignant at being forced out the other day by a mob, and are inclined to give the soldiers aid if there is a renewal of rioting.”
On May 4th in Bay View, the management of the North Chicago Rolling Mill met with a delegation of workers, many of whom were immigrants from Poland, but could not come to an agreement on an eight-hour day. As talks continued that day, companies of state militia began arriving at the mill, including the mostly Polish Kosciusko Guard. As the Guard marched through the company gates, an angry crowd pelted them with rocks and garbage.
The mill, originally called the Milwaukee Iron Co., was incorporated in 1866 on 114 acres on Jones Island. By 1870, the first blast furnace, the largest of its kind in the nation at that time, was in operation. Sixty-six feet high and 17 feet in diameter, the furnace produced 40 tons of pig iron a day. By 1871, a second furnace was in operation. In 1878, the company reorganized as the North Chicago Rolling Mill Co.
It was a brutal place to work. With temperatures reaching 130 degrees, mill hands toiled in perpetual smoke for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. Many earned $1 a day, the going rate for unskilled laborers, but skilled employees were, by the standards of the time, well compensated. Iron puddlers, hammerers, sheer operators, and others received $5 to $6.50 a day.
The commander of militia guarding the rolling mill was Major George P. Traeumer. He was born in Germany in 1839. His parents emigrated in 1849 and settled in Milwaukee. When the Civil War broke out Traeumer enlisted and served in the Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, where he was promoted to adjutant of the regiment and was twice wounded in combat. Returning to civilian life, he worked as deputy county clerk. In 1880, Traeumer was elected county clerk but continued to serve part-time with the militia’s South Side Turner Rifles.
Traeumer and his men settled in for a tense and uncomfortable night. They had received word that a mob would assault the works under cover of darkness in an attempt to burn the mill. The entire command was kept on alert until midnight and patrols roamed the grounds until daybreak. The Journal reported, “The officers and men of the command were unable to sleep, the temperatures being intensely cold, and the wind from the lake sweeping a fog over the camp that chilled the militiamen to the bone.”
About 7 o’clock in the morning of May 5th, Major Traeumer was informed that 1,500 laborers and union activists were marching to the factory. A Milwaukee Journal reporter witnessed the confrontation and sent the following telegram to the paper:
“The crowd began forming early this morning. About 1,500 were in line. About 8 o’clock they marched towards the rolling mills. Six military companies were ordered in line and stationed themselves in front of the works. The crowd marched on and were ordered to halt. They paid no attention, and a minute later the dread word “Fire!” was heard. The sharp crack of many rifles was heard, six companies taking deliberate aim at the advancing crowd and shooting to kill. A great panic ensued, and men and boys scrambled over each other in their haste to get beyond the reach of the gun.”
In his full account in that evening’s paper, the reporter wrote the rioters had gathered at St. Stanislaus Church that morning. Walking four abreast, they marched to Kinnickinnic Avenue and south to South Bay View Street, and then toward the rolling mill. The procession was followed by a number of men, women, and children, the later on their way to school. A Journal reporter noted “the men were armed with clubs and stones, many carried pistols, bars of iron, broken sythes, and other weapons.” However, he added, the men told him they did not intend violence but only wished to show that they were not intimidated by the militia.
The volley tore through the marchers as they reached a bend in South Bay Street and Lincoln Avenue. Seven were killed and several others injured. A 12-year-old schoolboy was fatally wounded by a gunshot wound through his abdomen. He was found with his textbooks still under his arm. A 60-year-old man watching the excitement from the doorway of his house was killed instantly by a bullet through his chest. Also among the dead was a man carrying a red socialist banner. The Journal reporter recalled having seen the man the previous day inciting a crowd and threatening a Bay View judge with a club.
Shortly after the shooting, Major Traeumer made the following report:
“Gov. Rusk gave me orders to keep the crowd away from the works at all hazards. Shortly after 7 o’clock we saw a crowd numbering about 2,000 men marching down South Bay Street towards the works. I drew my men in line facing the advancing crowd. The mob shouted “Burn the works and kill the militia!” The crowd was ordered to halt, but paid no attention to the command, but continued to advance. I then ordered my men to fire upon them at a range of about 200 yards. I think this action was necessary to protect the property of the Rolling Mill company, and the lives of the militia.”
The newspaper said the people of Bay View generally believed the militia had been too quick to open fire. Bloodshed, onlookers felt, could have been prevented by arranging the militia in line outside the works and menacing the crowd without shooting. The reporter also encountered a group of laborers gathered near the factory fence, and asked what they wanted. The reply, “Ten hours pay for eight hours work. Eight hours is pretty long enough for a man who works hard.”
Reactions to the shooting were mixed. The southern part of the city, the newspaper said, was wild with excitement. And at 2:30 p.m. that day, a riot broke out at Milwaukee Garden, a beer garden at 14th and State, the mob firing on police. About a dozen shots were exchanged, but no one was hurt.
Many workers were angry, but not all citizens of Milwaukee shared the indignation.The politically powerful South and North-side Turner societies adopted resolutions approving the action of the authorities in dealing with the rioters. Gov. Rusk was widely congratulated for ordering out the militia.
Interviewed hours after the shooting, Rusk said, “I am doing what I think right, and am enabled to do so without considering what political effect it might have for the future. I am too old a man to lose my reputation as a man, soldier, and protector at this critical moment.”
At the Reliance Works, where heavily armed soldiers had set up a gatling gun to fend off anticipated attacks and striking and non-striking workers had recently been fighting each other, owner Edward P. Allis appealed for calm, issuing this statement to his employees:
“I appeal to you all to remember that this is not a question of wages or of hours of labor, but of human rights and of manhood – of my right to run my works and your right to sell me your time and labor … if you have any complaints of wages or hours of labor, bring them to me and they will be fairly considered and acquiesced in or declined, and if we cannot agree, we will part like men, and if our works must close, it will be in peace and harmony and not with the throwing of stones and brandishing of clubs. With the firm belief, from my knowledge of your high characters, that you will prove yourselves equal to this great emergency, believe me, your friend, – Edward P. Allis”
The Bay View mill closed in 1929. The Reliance Works, in time, became Allis-Chalmers, one of America’s industrial giants. When Edward Allis died at age 61 in 1889, 1,000 of his workers silently filed past his coffin. A committee of employees drafted a resolution of condolence, which was sent to the Allis family. It read, in part, “by the death of Edward P. Allis, we have lost not only a kind, conscientious and liberal employer, but also a personal friend, endeared to us by his winning manners and by so many instances of thoughtful kindness and disinterested generosity, ever ready to meet with us on the broad plane of a common manhood.”
After the tragedy in Bay View, the eight-hour movement sputtered to a halt. Progress continued to made, very slowly. And, in Milwaukee, it took place largely without violence and much along the lines Allis suggested, with workers and management quietly working out wage and hour agreements, company by company.