Lumber Strikes in the Bay Area


Back in the late 19th Century the lumber industry was the biggest industry in the area. Hundreds of men worked in the industry doing things from cooking, scouting, milling, and cutting lumber. Most men were ok with how their jobs were doing, but some realized that their working conditions were atrocious. These men realized that they were working for upwards of twelve hours a day for six days a week. They also received their pay irregularly and some times it wasn’t even American dollars. These men were the ones that convinced the others to strike.

These men were excited by the “Ten Hour Law” with would limit the work day to ten hours. What the men didn’t realize was the fact that there was a loophole where the companies could force workers to work more than that if they were contracted to work more. The men wanted the law to be enacted as soon as the law came to be, not just in the beginning of the next season like the law stated. Because of this the men decided to rebel and stand up for their rights.

The strike first started as just a few disgruntled workers from a single lumber mill, but as they protested they attracted hundreds of people from surrounding mills. As their cause gained momentum they got the attention of the lumber barons who owned the mills in the area. The barons got upset because their source of labor wasn’t doing anything, so they weren’t making any money. They couldn’t hire any new people because the members of the strike were harassing the people who were not participating.

The police were sent to deal with the members of the strikes on multiple occasions, however their hands were tied most of the time due to regulations and orders from superiors. The barons hired the Pinkerton detectives to help deal with the threat of the strike members who got quite violent. The barons were forced to fire the Pinkerton detectives after a while due to the fact they were mercenaries.

Eventually the Strike was quelled after Governor Alger, a fellow lumber man, came and convinced the strike members their actions were illegal and warranted militia interference. The strike members realized that they still need the job and most came back willing to work. To their dismay however their strike did very little. They still had to work more than ten hours due to a loop hole and they didn’t get a wage increase. However the lumber barons did let them get a more consistent pay.

Sadly the whole force of the Bay Area lumber workers was nothing compared to the stubbornness of the lumber barons. The barons even recouped their losses due to the fact that they didn’t have to pay their workers for the whole length of the strike. However due to such extreme lumbering the forests and supplies of lumber would be depleted in a few years.

9 thoughts on “Lumber Strikes in the Bay Area

  1. I really think life was way harder back in the 19th century. The time amount of labor that hundreds of men did, really didn’t accumulate to what they should of actually been paid. Modern day the most hours people who work are 12 hour shifts. I’m pretty sure without all of the digital technology we have today they may could of worked 17+ hours in a day. That’s unattainable for any person, and I’m certain it drains the mind and body. I feel for the men who stood up for the 10 hour Law because they were getting paid less for more work.

  2. Being a Lumberman in the 19th century must have been extremely hard labor. Constantly lifting heavy logs and everything that comes with it. In your first paragraph you mentioned how the workers earned their pay irregular and sometimes not even in the proper currency. That astounds me, putting in all that hard work and sometimes not even being able to show for it. I would have joined the people who were in the strike, the lumber barons had no right to keep pay and extract as much as they could from the workers.

  3. Having been born and raised in Saginaw, I never knew of the national attention the lumber workers drew to our community during their strike in 1885. We even have a high school named after Arthur Hill, one of the lumber barons referenced who fought the workers’ revolt. In researching Hill, I found no mention of his involvement in the strike. The reason I cite this is to underscore the major imbalance of power between common laborers and the wealthy lumber employers during that time.

  4. I can’t imagine being a Lumberman back in the 19th century. I think back then men and women manually worked harder because of lack of technology but the way they were paid was wrongful and unjust. With the way times are now that would never go over very well with the laws and unions we have to protect us. I do think Lumberman workers still work hard and long hours because of it being a seasonal job but they have equipment to make it easier and they get paid for the long hours they work. I myself would of joined the strike. As the Lumber Barons, I could not live with the conscious of knowing how wrongfully they treated their worker.

  5. I enjoyed reading your blog. The strike by the lumbermen was short-lived and became violent at times. There was very little improvement for the lumbermen because of the strike. The one advantage that they did enjoy however was that people became aware of their situation. This created an environment where other lumbermen would be able to contract for better work conditions. The initial disgruntled few who started the strike probably gained no real advantage. They bravely stood up to the people with money and power and were able to, at the very least, negotiate a ten hour work day. The big problem was that the loopholes in the contract basically made it a no win situation for the lumbermen. Many did not stand in solidarity with the union and went back in order to keep their jobs. I have studied several strikes over the years and have found that the unions almost always create small improvement over a long period of time. It is the rare strike that creates rapid whole sale improvement for the workers.

  6. The lumber strike exposed how unfair the working conditions were in the state of Michigan and how much power the employers really had over their workers in the early 19th century. It was very interesting reading your blog post stating the governors involvement in the strike. Governor Alger seemed to seek the economical benefit of the lumber mills as compared to the needs of his people. It is sad to see that such a good opportunity for fair working conditions and pay be pushed aside so easily, even by the political powers of the state.

  7. I couldn’t imagine working at a lumber mill for upwards of 72 hours a week, thats insane. That would be enough to drive anyone crazy with that much physical exhaustion. Its too bad that the workers didn’t really gain what they strived for in the end, but they sure put up a heck of a fight. Its unfortunate that this was at a time where the government wasn’t really as focused on making people comfortable while working, rather than making their pockets a little deeper.

  8. I never have really understood companies taking advantage of workers, and I never have understood people working for companies who take advantage. I understand jobs were scarce, and that it was scary to strike without pay. However, in a free market, these things should take care of themselves it just takes time. I get it though, I get the striking, and I get the desperation that can manifest from working such long, demanding hours, for inconsistent pay. Ford paid his workers more than anyone at the time by far. It only takes someone smart enough to pave the way.

  9. Sometimes I truly wonder what it would be like to live during this time. Working 12 hours a day for 6 days a week? I can barely work 8 hours on some days without giving out. I can’t imagine doing that almost every day and without regulated pay? The men of the past were truly cut from something different from the people of today.

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