1885 Saginaw Valley Lumber Strike

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.


video: http://screencast.com/t/PowKRQSL

Article on 1885 Saginaw Valley Strike, Victor J. Mobley, page 27

Michigan Voices, Joe Grimm, page 102

17 thoughts on “1885 Saginaw Valley Lumber Strike

  1. I love your take on the Saginaw Valley Lumber Strike. I find it awesome how workers started fighting for their worker’s rights so early in history. I feel that this paved the way for future protests and really brought awareness to the worker’s rights cause. However, it was sad to read that the strikers didn’t gain anything from their protest, and the mill owners actually made money. Even though the workers did not gain rights at that certain moment in time, they helped to get the ball in motion on the protest for worker’s rights.

  2. It is sad to think that these workers were not able to conquer what they set out to do, but as Erica commented they got the ball rolling. Also we must remember that they did gain the reassurance from their employers that they would get payed regularly after the strike.

    1. Yes I agree, its sad they didn’t get exactly get what the set out for, but at least something good came of it and they started a huge chain in history, considering there are still strikes, although not as huge as this, today.

      1. I really like reading about early history such as this because it makes you realize how easy we have it now. We don’t have to fight for rights as sever as they did. If it wasn’t for the workers sticking up for what they believe in nothing might not have ever been done. It takes one person to start a change of reaction.

  3. I think it was interesting how this strike got national attention but yet the government did not stand behind them, instead stood with the employers. With this being so in the public media it seems the government would have wanted to get involved in a positive way instead a negative way.

      1. Hi,

        Governments, at this time, were against strikes. The governor owned a sawmill in Saginaw. He called in the Michigan Guard to squash the strike. Pinkertons were called in to intimidate and use violence to stop anyone from striking. Dr. F

    1. This is what bugged me the most about the Saginaw Valley Lumber Strike. Again, the government was just looking out for themselves rather than their workers and what was in their best interest. Now that I think about it, what was the reasoning behind the government waiting to put the 10-hour law into effect in September? Why couldn’t it have been put into effect immediately? It seems to me that two months wouldn’t make much of a difference.

      1. I agree Haley, why did it take until September for the law to go into effect? Did the government work with the companies to establish this date knowing it would help them get caught up paying their bills while not paying payroll for the summer? The workers gave up their income for a good cause, but unfortunately their sacrifices that summer didn’t help them at all.

        1. Just a note of clarification, it didn’t matter when the law went into effect. The workers were upset that the law wasn’t as they had proposed it. It had a clause in it that allowed employers to make it ineffective, because all employers had to do was force workers to sign a contract to work longer hours and then the ten-hour day wasn’t important. Dr. F

    2. I think today with the media, things might have been different. People would be joining in around the nation. Because of the injustice of the situation. I think back then, people were afraid, and they had enough of their own worries. Today everyone likes to get involved in everyone else’s business.

  4. I really appreciated your reference to workers in the automotive industry. They have been a force in the automotive industry even today. I have relatives that work for car manufacturers here in the Midwest. For them, belonging to a union is an advantage in the area of safer working conditions, benefits, profit-sharing, and earning more than fair wages. But auto workers have also gone out on strikes over the years for various reasons. It seems that the auto makers are like the sawmill owners. They make huge profits and yet are trying to take advantage of the workers or not pay them as they deserve. They seem to sacrifice employees over profits and yet it is the same workers that allow the companies to earn huge profits. Sometimes the strike achieves the goal and sometimes not so much. Each side has to compromise, but there seems to be the same unequal balance between the laborers and employers that brings about the strike in the first place. It’s unfortunate.

    1. Not much was mentioned about how these workers survived without paychecks while they were striking. It had to be a tough decision for a family man to fight for something he believed in so strongly while his family sacrificed for the cause too. Once unions were formed, workers were provided with “strike pay” which wasn’t much, but at least it was income.

  5. I think unions today do so much to help fight for the things the employee should have. Hospital workers and school workers have the option to be part of the union as well. These unions today because of the lumber mills have been able to help fight for the people. Fair wages, and better working conditions are the biggest fights even today.

  6. I find it insane that they did not pay the workers in American currency, it was either store credit or another currency. How did they expect those people to support themselves and their families with store credit or a foreign currency? It’s so strange that the government and the employers did not seem to care about what the employees were saying or fighting for and that it took so long for legislature to be passed to actually help the employees.

  7. It’s upsetting to see that the government was totally against all the people in the strike when they had such bad working conditions. It is also sad that the owners made money instead of the workers. But I think they for sure helped people in the future realize that you can fight for what you want.

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