MILWAUKEE (Reuters) – Democrats in the Wisconsin state Assembly want to remove a portrait of a former governor who gave an order that led to the fatal shooting of seven people in a Milwaukee labor dispute 125 years ago.
The political battle over art is reminiscent of the controversial removal earlier this year of a mural depicting workers’ history from the state Department of Labor office in Maine by Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
Wisconsin has been the focus of controversy over union issues this year. Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature’s successful attempt to pass a bill limiting collective bargaining rights for public workers led to massive protests.
In 1886, Republican Gov. Jeremiah Rusk ordered the state militia to keep the peace, which led to the fatal shootings of seven people during the Bay View Rolling Mill strike on the near south side of Milwaukee.
“He ordered the National Guard to fire on people who were marching for an eight-hour workday, even though some of those marchers were children,” said State Rep. Jon Richards, one of the co-sponsors of the resolution. “He is the last person we should be honoring in the state Capitol.”
Assembly Republicans are more concerned about putting people back to work, and not the artwork that graces the walls, said John Jagler, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald.
“We have bigger things to be talking about here,” Jagler said.
State Rep. Chris Sinicki, a Democrat from Milwaukee, said she and Richards have been working for the last 10 years to have the painting hanging in the state Assembly parlor removed. In May 2010, a black cross was placed over the painting during the anniversary of the Rolling Mill massacre, Sinicki said.
Sinicki linked Walker’s efforts to limit the influence of labor unions with the actions of Rusk, Wisconsin’s second-longest serving governor.
“When Governor Walker proposed his collective bargaining bill, instead of going to the table and trying to negotiate something, he bypassed that whole process and called out the National Guard because he knew there was going to be trouble on this,” Sinicki said. “That is the way I feel about the Republican leadership right now.”
Milwaukee historian John Gurda said that, at Rusk’s orders, the state militia took aim at demonstrators who may have had sticks and stones, but who were still about 200 yards away. The shooting occurred after days of labor unrest and a general strike by workers in Milwaukee seeking a shorter work day without a cut in pay. While historical accounts differ, seven people were killed, including a 13-year-old child struck by a stray bullet.
Rusk was unapologetic about his orders to the militia to shoot the strikers during the 1886 strike, Gurda said.
“He was not just unrepentant, he was proud,” Gurda said of Rusk, a decorated Civil War veteran who saw himself as a law and order governor. “He treated it like an engagement of an alien force, the difference being that it was citizens of his own state.”
(Writing and reporting by John Rondy; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Greg McCune)
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