Yesterday, in Los Angeles, the police attacked immigrant May Day marchers in an event eerily similar to, although not as deadly as, an attack on immigrant workers in Milwaukee 120 years ago in which seven workers were killed and Polish workers were scapegoated, fired, and blacklisted.
In 1886, German and Polish workers in Milwaukee organized by the Knights of Labor rallied for the eight hour day proclaiming "The workmen do not beg, they demand", "We do not work for King Mammon" and "Eight hours is our battlecry."
The Milwaukee Journal billed it as the biggest event in city history. The parade was observed by 25,000. Despite the threat of violence, eight hour strikes spread throughout the city. Workers paraded in the city's multi-lingual neighborhoods carrying banners demanding the 8 hour day in English, German and Polish. In response,
Wisconsin Governor, Jeremiah Rusk called out the state militia.
On May 5th, in Chicago's Hay Market Square a bomb exploded after an eight-hour day demonstration, 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.
The next day, striking demonstrators, undeterred by the Hay Market events, began a march to shut down the Rolling Mill in Bay View, the last open factory in Milwaukee. Governor Rusk issued an order to the General of the National Guard -- "Fire on them." The fight culminated when the National Guard opened fire on a march of mainly Polish workers at the Rolling Mill in Bay View.
The Journal described the marchers as "foreign agitators, especially from Poland." It wrote: "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." Seven people died as a result of the attack.
In the aftermath of North Chicago Rolling Mill massacre, the jury charged with investigating the events praised the officers who had fired on the workers, and indicted 50 Polish and German workers on "riot and conspiracy" or "riot and unlawful assembly" charges. They received sentences for hard labor (a cruel irony) ranging from six to nine months
Polish workers, many of whom were fired and replaced by non-Polish laborers, became the focus of an employer backlash. They were called "too radical" and blacklisted.. For their part in the massacre, businesses owned by members of the Kosciuko guard were boycotted by the city's Polish community.
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.
May 1 was declared International Workers Day in honor of those who died and sacrificed on May 1, 1886 in Milwaukee and Chicago.The Latino workers marching through the streets of Milwaukee and other cities were marching in the footsteps of their Polish and German immigrant brothers and sisters. They have revived a proud American tradition of immigrant workers fighting for their rights.