The 1885 Saginaw Valley Lumber Strike

The Saginaw Valley Lumber Strike took place on July 6th, 1885; but tensions had been rising well before this date. The Saginaw Valley Lumber strike occurred when many workingmen heard, “…the Legislature had recently passed a law making 10 hours a legal day’s work” (Grimm 102). This law was set to be implemented on September 19th, 1885; however the men were under the assumption that the law was to go into effect immediately, as they continued to work 11+ hour work days.

Laborers were clearly over-worked in the 19th century. As Grimm points out, “Before the strike, men had worked about 11 hours a day, six days a week, for an average $1.70 a day” (Grimm 102). The laborers were fighting for one hour less of work each day. To me it seems that even 10 hour work days for these men was too much; working in a sawmill is very physically and mentally taxing work.

As far as the balance of power between laborers and employers, clearly the power was not balanced at all. In the 19th century employers had all of the power and the laborers had very little if not any. This strike proved this as the laborers were on strike for nearly two months and did not make any headway. The employers had the government on their side as, “Gov. Alger sent in the state militia and businesses hired 150 Pinkerton guards” (Grimm 102). Although I would have liked to see the 10 hour work day law go into effect immediately and I do agree that 11+ hour work days were too much, the government did announce the law to go into effect on September 19th so I feel like the strike was a waste of time.

Ultimately, the employers and the government held their ground throughout the strike and did not grant laborers 10 hour work days until the selected date of September 19th. Laborers continued to strike until this day. Grimm said, “The strike, led by the Knights of Labor, ended when the 10-hour law took effect in September” (Grimm 102).


Grimm, Joe. Michigan Voices: Our State’s History in the Words of the People Who Lived It. Detroit Free Press, 1987.



11 thoughts on “The 1885 Saginaw Valley Lumber Strike

  1. What I found most unique was one of the pictures in the article, the picture where all the logs are waiting in the water. It makes me wonder if the strike impacted the logging industry at all? or did the mill already order the logs so they had to continue importing them even though the mills couldn’t do anything with them. Also, when the workers returned to work did that put them behind, possible meaning they had to work even more hours?

    1. I believe that the lumber industry was very badly affected by the strike and that’s why eventually the government stepped in to try to put an end to the strike. Michigan was a very big player in the lumber industry back then. I’m fairly positive that this strike led to lumber shortages throughout the nation.

  2. My thoughts kept coming back to the section that you included “about 11 hours a day, six days a week, for an average $1.70 a day” (Grimm, p. 102). I then remembered that a previous blogger made a conversion between money amounts from today and back then. I ran $1.70 through an inflation calculator and was shocked to see that it amounted to $42.09 a day in 2018. If a person worked 11 hour days for that pay, it would average out to just under $4 an hour. That’s well below minimum wage (not including wait staff for the restaurant food service industry before tips). The fact that the workers were trying to get 10-hour days for same pay meant a little bit over $4.20 an hour in today’s money. That doesn’t seem like too much for the business owners to pay. It’s hard to imagine working dirty and dangerous jobs today and trying to support yourself and/or families with that wage.

    1. The conversion was a good idea to see how the money back then equates to the money today. Trying to support a family, let alone yourself, in this time with $4.20 an hour would be a huge challenge. For the amount of work these men did and how dangerous the work was they definitely deserved more than minimum wage.

  3. Ten hour work days are exhausting no matter what you are doing. But the fact that what these men were doing was so physically draining must have made it much rougher. Kudos to the Knights of Labor for helping with the strike. It’s nice to see that an organization was out to protect the working class back when no one cares about them.

    1. The conversion is like a smack in the face to me too see how good we have it today, by the hours we work and how much we get paid. We are very blessed to be getting paid the right amount depending on hours unlike the workers back in the day. The conditions were terrible and I’m glad they stuck up for what they believed in.

  4. The conversion was crazy. It really puts it in your face how low their pay was. I can’t stop thinking that with the long hours working such a high stress and physical job, it is no wonder so many accidents would happen back then. Conditions may have been safer just with less hours and a crew that was less tired.

  5. 10 hour days must have been so exhausted in a job such as that, I know working 10 hours days at a normal not completely physical labor job is exhausting. My question is that why didn’t they think of having shorter days until after the news of it happening come out? Also, did they really think that they would be able to get it to happen any sooner after a date was set into place? After looking at the conversion provided, that is just crazy how little they were paid. Although at the same time their cost of living was so low also.

  6. I think it is insane that they worked for 11 hours a day for 6 days a week and got less than $2 a day. Especially for all of the hard work they are doing. I can barely stay awake when working 10 hours a day, for 3 days a week at a daycare. I couldn’t imagine being in the hot sun for that long. It’s also crazy that the government allowed for these conditions. And even worse that they were against them in their strike.

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