In 1885, workers and Knights of Labor fought for a decade trying to mandate a 10-hour maximum work day and overtime pay for hours over that. Lumber workers were working 14 hours a day, 6 days a week for minimum wage, and being treated like slaves. They couldn’t decide how long they worked, how much they were paid, and were responsible for themselves if they were injured while working. They also had issues with their paychecks. They were not paid regularly and not paid with American currency. Most of their paychecks were “store credit” and that didn’t give them options to spend or save their paychecks how they wanted to.
By the early 1880’s, the lumber workers were tired of working long hours in a dangerous job and living in deplorable conditions. Many workers joined the Knights of Labor to try to gain control of labor relations. In May of 1885, Michigan legislature enacted a law for a 10-hour work day, but it allowed employers to contract for longer hours. Many workers signed the contract which included stipulations for longer hours than a 10-hour day. They would have to work as long as their employers wanted them to. So, the law really didn’t help the mill workers because of these stipulations.
The lumber workers tried to negotiate changes. They asked their employers for a 10-hour work day for the same wages that they were paid when they worked a 12-hour day. They also asked that they be paid regularly and in American currency. But their employers, the lumber barons, ignored their requests. So, in July of 1885, the Saginaw & Bay City lumber workers went on strike, led by the Knights of Labor. Approximately 20 miles along the Saginaw River and 120 industries closed. The number of persons out of employment was estimated at 6,000 to 7,000 and their cry was “ten hours or no sawdust” (Grimm pg. 102). This strike wasn’t like other labor strikes in the country. This strike crippled the lumber industry because Michigan provided the majority of wood for the nation. It gained national attention. Lawmen and the Michigan Guard were called in to stop the strike. Some strikers were beaten while others were arrested.
When the strike finally ended in September of 1885, the workers lost and the mill owners took them back under the same working conditions as before the strike. So, the lumber workers didn’t gain anything from the strike. But the mill owners gained by not having payroll for the summer which helped them balance their books. (Mobley, page 27). The working class established itself as a powerful force that would be shown again in the automotive industry in years following. Workers learned that they need to fight for safe working conditions and fair wages.
Article on 1885 Saginaw Valley Strike, Victor J. Mobley, page 27
Michigan Voices, Joe Grimm, page 102