Bay View Massacre reenactment focuses on workers’ rights

By - May 5th, 2012 04:00 am
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Re-enactors of the Bay View Massacre in 2011. (Photos: Nickolas Nikolic)

A free outdoor ceremony this Sunday, May 6th will mark the 126th anniversary of the Bay View Tragedy, Wisconsin’s most dramatic labor event. It commemorates the tragedy of May 5, 1886, when the State Militia shot into some 1,500 workers marching in an eight-hour-day rally and killed seven in front of the old Bay View Rolling Mills, then Milwaukee’s largest manufacturing plant.

A dedicated committee has been memorializing the massacre since 1986, its 100th anniversary. They’ve seen sunny days, rainy ones, and even snow. This year, the seven pear trees planted to commemorate the dead have already born their beautiful white blossoms, which typically bloom in early May.

Kenneth Germanson, President Emeritus of Wisconsin Labor History Society, has been involved since the beginning, as has the Bay View Historical Society. Nancy Tawney, President of the Society, is this year’s Master of Ceremonies.

Germanson’s personal history is closely tied to labor issues. He was a member of the Newspaper Guild for nine years while reporting for the old Milwaukee Sentinel. In 1962, he served on the Bargaining Committee during a 10 week strike against the newspaper’s owner, Hearst Corporation. The newspaper closed, was bought by The Journal Company, and Germanson lost his job. He then worked for 30 years as a full-time union representative.

The event has grown from what started as a memorial. Last year, with the interest in Governor Scott Walker’s elimination of most union rights for public employees, over 400 people attended.

Comparing the political climate of today with the events of 1886, Germanson said, “The issues are different, but the fighters and actors are in the same corner…Society moves on the concept of power.”

Back then, workers labored in sooty, dirty, hot factories, 10 – 16 hours per day, six days per week, with few safety measures. Their biggest demand was an eight-hour work day. A group of unions formally requested this of their employers in 1884.

Two years later, with no changes made, workers started marching on May 1st in cities from New York City to San Francisco. Some of the heaviest demonstrations were in the Midwest, including Milwaukee. On the North Side, it was predominantly German brewery workers; on the South Side, Polish industrial mill laborers.

On Tuesday, May 4th, a peaceful workers rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square was disrupted when a bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians. Fears of anarchist demonstrators spread to Milwaukee. A day later, when some 1,500 marchers approached Bay View Rolling Mills, the State Militia killed at least seven persons on orders from Governor Jeremiah Rusk.

The eight-hour-day movement was temporarily halted by this violence, and the Fair Labor Standards Act did not become law until 1938.

Germanson sees the commemoration as a way to “keep the memory of this event alive.” He wants people to “Remember the benefits you enjoy today did not come cheaply. It took struggles…It didn’t come from the generosity of management…Only through workers’ solidarity expressed in various ways can we achieve a just society and a decent life for all citizens.”

Keeping the focus on workers’ rights

But although the ceremony has political overtones, Germanson said, “We’re trying to focus on the worker effort. We don’t want it to be a political event.” The committee does not push for any specific legislation and rather sees the event as an opportunity for community education. This year, they plan to create an educational video and guide. A handful of politicians usually show up. They are introduced, but rarely given a platform to speak.

Over the years, Germanson has been heartened by the ceremony’s effect on people. Union members have made up the majority of audiences. He said, “It’s particularly good for folks to meet and form friendships.” It’s a “very inspiring event…Some are literally brought to tears when the names [of the dead] are read.”

The all-volunteer crew has kept the event to a “simple ceremony,” Germanson said. This year it will feature an address by Wisconsin State AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Stephanie Bloomingdale.

Like last year, Milwaukee Public Theatre and Milwaukee Puppet and Mask Theatre will re-enact the May 5th event with over 20 actors reading from speeches of the period, players in period costume, and larger-than-life puppets.

Larry Penn, folksinger and retired Teamster, will perform several songs, including his own, “Ghosts of Bay View,” and “Solidarity Forever.”

Members of the family of the late Mayor Frank P. Zeidler will participate, which includes the placing of a wreath honoring the workers who were killed. Zeidler, Milwaukee mayor from 1948 to 1960, died at age 93 in 2006 and was a regular speaker at the event.

The ceremony will be followed by a discussion forum led by Milwaukee Historian John Gurda, who will give opening remarks before taking comments from a panel of historians and worker activists, as well as the audience. The forum will be held at 4 p.m. at Club Garibaldi, 2501 S. Superior St.

The Commemoration of the Bay View Tragedy is to be held at 3 p.m., Sunday, May 6, 2012 at the Bay View Rolling Mills State Historical marker site at S. Superior St. and E. Russell Ave., on Milwaukee’s lakefront.

The event this year is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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