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.