(Photo Courtesy of the Bay County Historical Society)
In 1871, Henry Sage ordered the cutting down of trees on an Indian Reservation illegally. After some complaints, an agent was sent to check it out and had discovered a considerable amount of acres of trees that were cut down on the Reservation. Sage was found to be helped by a former Saginaw Congressmen too. Stealing lumber from Native Americans was relatively common practice during that time for some lumber barons. Although, Sage’s reputation alone was enough for no Michigan judge to convict which is why he was never convicted. This set the precedent of his greed, influence and work ethics, along with some of the other lumber barons, during the initial serious strike and the following strike that ensued.
Henry Sage’s and John McGraw’s sawmills had horrible working conditions and their workers’ wages were being cut to account for the decreasing lumber prices and excess supply over demand which led to the two most notable strikes to occur. In 1870, with previous smaller strikes having failed, a more impacting strike happened with 1,200 workers protesting and even caused a few mills to shut down momentarily. This resulted in the Bay County Sheriff, Patrick Perrott, and six other men to hold off the angry mob. Once things started turning more violent, Perrott brought out his pistol and threatened to blow their heads off if there was anymore resistance. The mob of workers broke up and ultimately 35 were detained, then back to work again until they were tired of still being ignored on the labor issues.
These sawmill workers were working 11 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, being paid monthly and losing 25 percent of pay to make up for the decrease in lumber prices. In September 1885, there was a Michigan law going into effect for 10-hour work days, that contained loopholes in individual workers’ contracts to give employers authority to compel them to sign and work their original extended hours, unbeknownst to the workers during their 1885 strike. All of this led up to the 1885 Saginaw Valley Strike in July to push for 10-hour days sooner than September along with regulated biweekly pay. Workers started taking to the streets armed with weapons, going mill to mill and accruing more men as they went, some joined out of fear of their safety from the strikers. National Guard and officers were called to combat the mob. In a few days the mob doubled in size, shutting down a few mills as they went. On July 12, a meeting was scheduled to negotiate but it was unsuccessful. By August, many left the cause when other employers said they’d reduce the hours to 10 and in the same month another violent, futile strike that ended as soon as it started. By September, they returned to work in the same conditions as before and 8 weeks of no pay to make up for the season. They didn’t get everything that they were fighting for but they still left an impact and brought awareness to the labor issues.
Although some of the lumber industries didn’t last much longer due to resources depleting, the dynamic of employers and laborers remained in the memories of everyone involved and across the country. These strikes showed how horrible the relations between employer and employee were then and still now, even with many improvements since then. Owners were all about profiting even if it meant treating workers poorly and stealing from Native Americans. Workers only wanted to have less of a hard workload in a day with still being paid enough to provide for their families and have more time with them too. During that time period, the owners had all the say and little to no sympathy for their workers, even with politics being involved.
Rubenstein, Bruce A. and Ziewacz, Lawrence E. Michigan: A History of the Great Lakes State. Wiley Blackwell, 2014.
Mobley, Victor J. 2012. “Bay City’s Long Summer: The Labor Strike of 1885.” Bay Journal.