We Will Not Forget Workers’ Struggles in Wisconsin

On May 5, 1886, thousands of Milwaukee workers marched peacefully on the huge Bay View Rolling Mills as part of a nationwide effort to bring about the eight-hour day. On orders from Gov. Jeremiah Rusk, the state militia fired, killing seven. This was the bloodiest labor disturbance in Wisconsin history, and began a new struggle for a more humane workplace and a more just society.

On Sunday, May 1, 2011 some 300 Wisconsinites gathered in solidarity at the state historical marker and monument to the tragedy in Bay View to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the tragedy.  Folksinger Larry Penn performed a few labor classics; actors from the Milwaukee Public Theater and the Milwaukee Puppet Theater staged a dramatic re-enactment; a wreath was laid at the monument; the names of the dead were read; and I delivered a short oration (available on YouTube).

The following lines are the words I delivered:


Those who marched 125 years ago had left behind kings, aristocrats, landlords, and masters. And they had come to a nation of citizens, not subjects. A nation that declared: All men are created equal…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights… among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A nation in which “We the People” rule!

Truly, those who marched that day had joined a people who had fought a revolution—a revolution not only for independence, but also to make a Democratic republic; indeed, a people who had fought a Civil War—a Civil War not only to sustain the union, but also to assure that in it, freedom prevailed over slavery.

Life was challenging and demanding—to say the least. But the challenges and demands were no worse than those which they had known before. And in any case, those who marched could see the possibilities here in the place that the revolutionary Thomas Paine had called an “Asylum for Mankind.”

Moreover, they grasped America’s purpose and promise and felt the nation’s democratic imperative and impulse—perhaps more clearly and more dearly than those who had come to this place before them.

At the same time, they recognized that “a new birth of freedom” was never given, but had to be won. Those who marched had come a long way—and they had no intention of failing themselves, their families, their comrades, or their new home, America.

So we gather here not simply to remember and honor them, but all the more to draw inspiration, strength and courage from their commitment, their determination, their hopes and their aspirations.

Many generations of working people have come to this town on the lakeshore with its diverse faiths and ethnicities—not to mention its love of beer, baseball, brats and babies. And together, here in Milwaukee and beyond, they created great things—the greatest city in Wisconsin, the greatest state in America, the greatest nation in history.

But of course, there are those who have denied and continue to deny America’s purpose and promise. And they have fought us every step of the way.

You know who they are. They put power, property and profits over personhood. They insist that the American Dream is fulfilled. They proclaim that history ended in 1776—or in 1848, or in 1865, or in 1920, or in 1945, or in 1965, or whenever.

But such folks don’t get it….Better said, they get it, but they don’t want us to get it!

They don’t want us to remember what the likes of Thomas Paine, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, Robert La Follette, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., César Chávez and those whose sacrifices we commemorate here today never forgot.

They don’t want us to remember that we are descended from people who—for all their faults and failings—fought a revolution, a civil war, and a world war, not in hopes of defending the status quo, but in hopes of realizing freedom of speech…freedom of worship…freedom from want…freedom from fear….

They want us to forget that we are the children of people who built homes, livelihoods and communities, who organized political parties and labor unions and struggled for their rights as Americans—not just because they needed to, but also because they had made the Grand American Experiment of extending and deepening freedom, equality and democracy their own.

In fact, those who deny America’s purpose and promise don’t want us even to feel. They don’t want us to feel America’s democratic impulse—an impulse that not only led working men and women to come to Wisconsin; to build this community; to organize a union; and to dream of an Eight-Hour Day—eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will—but also led them to march here in Bay View on May 5, 1886.

But we will not stop remembering or feeling….

We will remember them and we will honor them.

Against the ambitions and schemes of those who would deny America’s purpose and promise:

We will continue to gather in solidarity.

We will continue to fight for our rights.

And we will continue to declare that “This is what democracy looks like!”


This year on Sunday May 3 we gather again to remember and to reaffirm our commitment to democracy and workers’ rights.  And despite Governor Scott Walker and the Republicans’ assault on our rights the struggle here in Wisconsin continues…

Harvey J. Kaye is Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of “The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great” (Simon & Schuster) – which has just been published in a paperback edition. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HarveyJKaye

Get updates in your inbox