Zeidler remembered as man who made history

Annual tragedy commemoration takes on special meaning

May 9, 2007

As they have done every year since 1986, labor activists, elected officials and residents gathered at the historical marker on the northeast corner of South Superior Street and East Russell Avenue on May 6 to commemorate the anniversary of the 1886 Bay View Tragedy. At this year's commemoration, however, a key figure in Milwaukee's socialist and labor history was missing.

When former Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler died at age 93 in July, keynote speaker John Gurda of Bay View said, "a lot of us lost a dear friend and Milwaukee lost a civic saint."

One of Zeidler's last public appearances was at the 2006 Bay View Tragedy commemoration, noted Ken Germanson of the Wisconsin Labor History Society. Zeidler was one of the driving forces in organizing the Bay View Tragedy commemoration when it began 21 years ago. He was a member of the planning committee and a regular participant in the event.

Gurda, an author and historian, drew a direct line from the Bay View Tragedy to the development of socialist politics in Milwaukee, which eventually put Zeidler in the mayor's office for three terms.

Deplorable working conditions

Gurda said the Bay View Rolling Mills, a sprawling manufacturing plant that stood at East Russell Avenue and South Superior Street in the 1880s, had working conditions at that time that were "nothing less than criminal."

Employees, many of them immigrants, worked 12-hour days six days a week for low wages and no benefits. Workers endured temperatures around the plant's blast furnace that were "routinely 160 degrees," Gurda said.

Milwaukee's first labor union was formed in 1842, Gurda noted, before Milwaukee became a city. By 1886, unions were striking and demonstrating for eight-hour work days with no cuts in pay.

On May 5, 1886, thousands of Milwaukee workers marched on the Bay View Rolling Mills plant as part of a national push for the eight-hour work day. The state militia, which had been called in to turn the crowd back, fired on the marchers, killing seven. It was the deadliest incident in Wisconsin labor history.

Champion for working class

Gurda said union members in Milwaukee refused to be intimidated by the shootings and were not "pushed into the shadows." Instead, they used the ballot box to fight back.

The Bay View Tragedy gave rise to a populist political party that swept the next election, but was short-lived. A subsequent socialist movement, backed by labor, gained steadily in strength and began winning elections for local, state and national office.

Gurda said there was a Socialist Party sweep of Milwaukee elected offices in 1910.

"With labor's backing, Socialists turned Milwaukee around," he said.

Socialists were known for clean government, Gurda said, and for championing the causes of working-class people.

Milwaukeeans elected two Socialist mayors before Zeidler, running as a Socialist, took office in 1948. He served as mayor until 1960 and became a legendary, but always accessible, figure on the city's political scene.

Making history

Author, lecturer and history professor Stephen Hauser, a close friend of Zeidler, told the crowd of about 100 people that history is not just about presidents and kings, premiers, prime ministers and generals. He said it also is about average people who build communities.

"History is created by all of us and no one understood that better than Frank Zeidler," Hauser said. "In the Bay View Tragedy, there is also the Bay View triumph of those who stepped forward to fulfill that role."

Zeidler's widow, Agnes, daughter, Anita, and son, Michael, were on hand as Hauser took on a task that Frank Zeidler had always assumed - reading the names of those killed during the Bay View Tragedy.

"To create great change, sometimes great events are required," Hauser said of the Bay View Tragedy. "History has a way of calling things to our attention."

Contact reporter Nan Bialek at (262) 446-6632 or amuehlbauer@cninow.com.

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