Over a century ago, at a time when it was common for workers to put in 10 to 12 hour days, six days
a week, one of the great battles of the eight-hour movement was fought right here in Wisconsin, at the North Chicago Rolling
Mill in Bay View on Milwaukee's south-side.
On Saturday, May 1, 1886, roughly 7,000 Milwaukee building
trades workers, cigar makers and brewery workers, joined by 5,000 Polish laborers, struck their employers demanding an eight-hour
The next day, a demonstration was held. Despite the presence of four companies of infantry, the artillery
battery, and a light horse squadron, workers paraded the streets of Milwaukee
carrying banners promoting the eight-hour theme in English, German and Polish through the city's multi-lingual neighborhoods.
On Monday, the strike continued. Thousands of building trade and brewery workers marched from factory
to factory, advocating eight-hour days without reduced wages, and urged the factory workers to join their strike.
One by one the plants closed. After successfully shutting-down shops at the Milwaukee & St. Paul
Railroad in West Milwaukee, the striking workers headed toward the Edward P. Allis Reliance Works.
There, they were met by a stream of water, fired on the crowd with fire hoses. The striking workers, however, were not turned
back, and Reliance Works closed its doors as its own workers joined the demonstration.
By day's end, 14,000 workers had joined the strike, which had already resulted in mason and bricklayers
gaining 20% wage increases and the option of working 8 or 10 hour days. Best Brewing also had conceded to the strike, giving
its workers eight-hour days and increased wages.
But, by mid-week, factory owners began relying on tactics far more intimidating than water hoses to
deter demonstrators in an effort to bring the strikes to a halt. On the morning of May 4th, three companies of militia met
a group of strikers who had gathered at St. Stanislaus Church, intent on marching on North Chicago Rolling Mill in Bay View.
Soldiers fired volleys over the crowd as word spread that another demonstration in the city had successfully closed bakeries
and foundries in the central city.
Later that same day, a bomb exploded after an eight-hour day demonstration in Chicago's
Hay Market Square, killing seven police and wounding sixty. As word of
the bombing spread, tensions in Milwaukee grew.
Milwaukee employers were determined to draw the line at
North Chicago Rolling Mill. They were not going to accept a prolonged strike and warned then Governor Rusk, "our whole civilization
and independence" would depend on his decisive action. Governor Rusk responded by calling up the National Guard and sending
them to the Mill.
As striking demonstrators, undeterred by the events of the preceding day, began their march on North
Chicago Rolling Mill, Governor Rusk issued an order by telephone to the General of the National Guard -- "Fire on them."
As described later that day in an article that appeared in the Milwaukee Journal, "Lincoln
Avenue, the boundary line between the south end of the city and Bay View, was sprinkled with the
blood of Polish rioters at 9 o'clock this morning." The article then listed the names
of the 4 laborers killed and 6 that were wounded in the gun-fire. In the next day's edition, the Milwaukee Journal matter
of factly reported, "Two more of the Polish victims of yesterday's battle died today, and three others will probably die before
morning," adding "From all parts of the State messages have come commending Gov. Rusk for the promptitude with which he acted."
In the aftermath of North Chicago Rolling Mill massacre, the jury charged with investigating the day?s
events eventually praised the officers who had fired on the crowd, while indicting 50 workers on "riot and conspiracy" or
"riot and unlawful assembly" charges.
Polish workers, many of whom were fired and replaced by non-Polish laborers, became the focus of employer
backlash from the eight-hour day movement and example to any worker with thoughts of supporting worker rights.
To drive home that point, employers who benefited from the deadly strike-breaking tactics at Rolling
Mill later rewarded the militia companies that fired on the Polish laborers with gifts of cash for their service.
© 2006 Wisconsin Laborers District Council
point is not that things are much better than they were in 1886, but rather that given the wealth produced from labor, the
workers in 1886 were demanding a greater share. Today’s workers, whom because
of industrialization, produce far more, unfortunately receive a lesser share than they did a century ago. It is not how much better off the workers are today, but rather how much better off they would be if there
was a strong labor movement—jk.