In the late 1800s, having a job could be almost as bad as being unemployed. Workdays of 10 to 16 hours were common, for little pay. Labor groups were just beginning to become organized, and around 1880, a coordinated movement for an eight hour workday began. In 1884, the Knights of Labor called for a nationwide strike if employers refused to meet their demands by May 1, 1886.

The deadline passed, and although Milwaukee had adopted a law establishing the 8 hour day, the ordinance lacked sufficient strength to compel employers, so labor organizations took to the streets. Governor Jeremiah Rusk, fearing that such demonstrations might turn violent, puts the state militia on standby.

On May 2nd, the Governor comes to Milwaukee. The protestors begin working their way through the city, shutting down factories and enlisting recruits. Factory owners begin pressuring the Rusk to call on the militia to put down the demonstrations.

By May 3rd, every factory in the city had been closed except the Rolling Mills steel foundry in Bay View. Governor Rusk finally relents, and summons militia units to protect the factory. They do not arrive in force until the next day, and when they do the crowd begins throwing rocks. Some of the militia fire into the air, warding off the protestors, but hitting the factory in the process. Meanwhile, similar protests in Chicago have turned bloody when a bomb explodes in Haymarket Square, killing seven police officers. Rusk, fearing similar violence, orders the milita to shoot to kill if the protestors make any attempt to enter the factory.

On the morning of the 5th, the striking workers once again begin moving towards the factory. The militia commander orders them to stop, but his order is either not heard, or ignored. The crowd continued moving forward, and the command to fire was delivered. Seven protesters were killed, and the crowd quickly disbanded. The labor movement in Milwaukee was, for the time being, defeated.

Rights are something that one is rarely given. They come, not from having been earned or deserved, but from having been fought for. Some of the hardest fought struggles in labor have been over little things—taken for granted things. Things like the eight hour workday or the forty hour workweek. Many are unaware or have forgotten just how contentious that struggle was or that even less than one hundred years ago people were dying for those things.1

Working conditions
Even in the late nineteenth century, though workers had made some small attempts at organization and demands for rights and safety (primarily within single factories, rather than as an occupation across the board), labor had won very little. Working conditions were substandard, hours were long, firing arbitrary, safety not a concern, and pay was low—barely enough to survive for some and sometimes issued in company "scrip" which only allowed items to be purchased from company stores.

There were some exceptions of widespread organization. There was the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which organized under the name Federation of Organized Trades in 1881. There also was the Knights of Labor, founded in 1869, which was open to all working people "except for bankers, lawyers, stockbrokers, doctors and liquor manufacturers" ( And there was the United Mine Workers of America (UWMA), started in 1890. Despite that, most workers were isolated and unable to organize. Only about 2% of the total workforce and 10% of industry was unionized. And those unions only had so much power to wield against large companies or businesses.

Eight hour days
It is through popular movements that rights are won. People gather together, organize, and struggle. That is how real change occurs. And in the mid 1880s, one of those things that workers were trying to win was an eight hour workday. This was a time when the common workweek was six days (or averaged out to be six) and the workday was ten, twelve, and even sixteen hours. Needless to say the concept of overtime was nonexistent.

The Federation of Organized Trades and the Knights of Labor had both decided the time was ripe for a concerted effort to achieve the shorter workday. It was decided that 1 May 1886 would be the day. Any workers not yet having won on that issue would strike. This would lead to 190,000 people in over 1600 demonstrations across the country going on strike and 150,000 achieving the goal just by threatening to strike. But it wasn't so easy everywhere.

When one thinks of strikes, one thinks of the manufacturing and textile areas in the Northeast, the coal mining areas of Pennsylvania or Colorado, or some other highly industrialized region. But these strikes took place all over. The center of the strike was in Chicago, Illinois—the infamous Haymarket Massacre was part of the demonstrations.

There was another "massacre" that was part of the eight hour a day strikes, one that is often overlooked. In a place not many consider to be a heavy industrialized area: Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

In Milwaukee, the people were able to convince the city government to institute an eight hour day law. Though it might seem a victory, the law had no teeth. There were no penalties under the law for any company that did not comply. Because of this oversight (if it really was an oversight), things really didn't change. The workers decided to do what they could to get a real law passed.

2 May 1886
The organizers held a large parade of protest. They marched with specially made flags and banners with slogans like "The workmen do not beg, they demand," "We do not work for King Mammon," and "Eight hours is our battle cry." They chanted

We want to see the sunshine
We want to smell the flowers
We want the time for what we will
We mean to have eight hours


Eight hours for work
Eight hours for rest
Eight hours for what we will

The local newspaper (the Milwaukee Journal) described it as the biggest event in the city's history. At least 25,000 people came to watch the parade—to put this in perspective, the 1880 population of the city was around 115,600. It was no small affair.

Following the parade, they had a picnic, while speakers discussed the topic and demanded the eight hour day, among other labor concerns. The crowd was inspired by the speeches and the movement and they all began chanting.

Members of the Knights of Labor, who had attended, met at a local church and spoke to their members. It wasn't long before more action took place and some 800 people began a march through the streets chanting for the new hours and calling for workers to strike. Many of the city's Polish workers joined in and marched with them. As they marched many workers joined them in solidarity for the cause.

When the marchers got to the Edward P. Allis Reliant Steel Works, management and foremen met them at the gate and tried to turn them away. The had to resort to using high pressure water hoses aimed into the crowd in order to make them back off. It may have pushed them away, but the commotion and the chanting of demands persuaded many of the company's workers to stop working and join the march.

The CM&StP (Chicago Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway) company—the first factory the marchers had gone to—made a special train available to Governor Jeremiah Rusk (served 1882-1889), who was concerned with the threat of potential violence. He came to Milwaukee and set up an office at a hotel. He had already put the state militia on standby on 29 April, but was reluctant to bring them in just yet—despite owners and management asking for their presence. Rusk decided that for the time being, he would let the Milwaukee police handle and "trouble."

The march continued and its ranks swelled with striking workers. They were followed by the police, vigilantly watching for the violence they anticipated from the marchers. Asked again for the militia, the governor again declined.

3 May 1886
The strike had reached citywide proportions by the second day. Only one factory remained operational: the North Chicago Rolling Mills Steel Foundry in Bay View (a part of Milwaukee). The marchers were now about 1500 strong and made up of Poles, Germans, and Indians—as the paper described them: "foreign agitators, especially from Poland" ( The total number of strikers was about 12,000.

The head of the Knights of Labor (Robert Shilling) managed to convince Edward Allis to give his workers the eight hour day, plus a wage increase. The protesters, while appreciative, refused to return to work until everyone got the demanded change. Shilling and Paul Gottkau (socialist leader of the Central Labor Union) each tried to get the crowd to break up, speaking in the workers' native languages. The pleas were refused and the newspaper reporters (who only understood English) wrote that they were inciting the crowd.

The marchers then moved on to Bay View, with police in tow. It was late afternoon and the governor was called, once again the request for the militia be sent in. This time, the governor agrees and deploys them. This included the Kosciuko Militia which was made up of Poles—mostly businessmen. It was probably a tactical decision, given the majority of the workers were Polish.

The strikers tried to gain entry at Rolling Mills but were refused by the plant manager. In response, they would not allow him to go back into the factory unless he relented. The arrival of one of the militia groups on one of those "special trains" rescued the manager and helped him back inside. They lined up between the strikers and the mills (where the workers are already disrupting production due to discussion and argument about the eight hour demand).

Tensions ran high as striking workers began throwing rocks at militia men who had been instructed to protect the property "at all costs" ( By that night, there were more than 250 National Guardsmen in the area around the mills.

4 May 1886
When the Kosciuko Militia arrived the next morning, they were mocked and yelled at, called "traitors" by the crowd, which taunted them to join or go home. They then blocked the way so that the militia could not join up with the other ones guarding the mills. Again there was rock throwing, which caused some of the members of the Kosciuko to fire their guns into the air (the shots ended up hitting the mills). It was enough to make the crowd back off.

At the request of the crowd, the management agrees to wire the Chicago office and ask for permission to implement the eight hour day. They get a flat "no." Unsurprising, since the Haymarket Massacre took place that day in Chicago. The incident, of course, is used as "proof" of the dangerous and anarchist nature of the strikers. So the governor decided to call the mills and give the captain in charge the order that "if the strikers try to enter the mill, shoot to kill" ( Men are told to each pick a single man and prepare to kill that man when the order is given.

That night, the strikers slept in nearby fields while the militia shot at anything that moved. Provisions were brought in during the night. No one was hurt.

5 May 1886
The strikers were determined to see their cause through. This despite, having a distinct lack of hierarchal leadership—as noted by a reporter who had spent the night with them, and who also remarked how the group was united with singular purpose.

The strikers began to chant around 9 AM and began to advance on the mill where the militia awaited them, under their orders. The captain gave the order to halt. The opinion of those writing on the subject seems undecided whether the crowd did not hear him or ignored him. Since they were likely to have still been chanting, the former is probably accurate.

But what seems ignored is that the crowd was about 200 yards (about 183 m) away. It seems a bit implausible that he actually believed that they would have heard the order unless he yelled at the top of his lungs and the crowd was silent. It almost begs the question whether there was an order to halt in the first place, but that is only speculation.

The crowd didn't stop and the militia was ordered to open fire into the oncoming mass. When the shooting stopped, an unspecified number of people were wounded and seven people were dead. Among them were a thirteen year old who had only been following the crowd to see what was going on and a retired worker who was not part of the demonstration, but got hit while going outside to get some water. According to the paper, eight more were not expected to survive 24 hours (it is unclear whether they did or not). One of the wounded was shot through the jaw had had to have it replaced with a silver one (according to the Milwaukee Sentinel).

The shootings scattered the crowd and while later many called for revenge for the deaths, no one acted on it. Others tried marching in the days following the event but the movement had been struck down as planned.

Following the May 5th shootings
On 6 May, the leaders of the various labor groups asked the governor to pull out the militia, promising to "police their own actions" ( He refused and demanded the strikers all return to work. The militia would remain until 13 May.

In the days that followed, people cleaning up the area found the bodies of two (apparently) Polish immigrants who had also been shot. The bodies were never identified.

The eight hour dream was shattered, as everyone went back to ten hour days. Edward Allis fired his Polish workers calling them "too radical" (, and replaced them with other immigrants. This action became widespread and Poles soon had difficulty finding work. For their part in the massacre, businesses owned by members of the Kosciuko guard were boycotted by the cities Polish community.

A coroner's jury was convened, but found no one guilty. It was considered an "unpleasant duty, a humane gesture for firing only one volley" into the crowd ( While the humanitarians who fired the shots went away free, some twenty Poles were indicted for unlawful assembly. The sentences were for hard labor (a cruel irony) and for six to nine months (Grottkau got the longest sentence, presumably for his "incitement" of the crowd). Shilling was indicted but his trial ended with a hung jury. Before a second trial, he formed the a new political party which elected a new district attorney who then acquitted Shilling.

It later came to light that the companies were paying out cash to the militias for their "work." The newspaper condemned the practice on the grounds that it was going too far—the militia had already done "what was expected of them" (

Labor had been defeated, but only temporarily. Despite the usual stereotypes of Wisconsin, labor and politicization had begun and by 1888, the county and city government had been replaced with socialist party members (Milwaukee has had three socialist mayors, the last one serving 1948-1960). Wisconsin even elected (and reelected despite being charged under the Espionage Act and being sentenced to 20 years in prison) the first socialist to Congress, Victor Berger. (It might also be noted that the magazine The Progressive is based in Madison, Wisconsin and has been published since 1929—and under a different title starting in 1909.)

Eventually, labor—people—won. The eight hour workday is the law and overtime (for nonsalaried employees) carries higher wages (usually time and a half). As historian Howard Zinn writes:

The story of social struggle throughout history is that defeats take place, but people persist. If there's fundamental grievance that remains, people may remain quiet for a while, but people ultimately will rise up against it and things will change.

1For example the Lawrence Textile Strike in 1912 and Ludlow Massacre in 1914, among others.


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