Saginaw Strike of 1885

The 1885 Saginaw Valley Strike, “10 Hours or No Sawdust” became the largest strike in Michigan for lumber workers.  The Mills were the biggest industry in that area which proved hundreds of jobs from milling, cutting lumber and loading to many more jobs within the company. The Bay City and Saginaw Mills provided lumber to major cities in the country. (Bay-Journal)

Over the years the workers at the mills realized how many hours and days they put in and were not getting a fair return. Workers were working 50 plus hours, six days a week plus getting paid irregularly. At times instead of money, they would get store credit or even get paid with non U.S. currency. They also were not allowed to make any decisions within the company. They felt like slaves. (Professor Amy French video)

In the 1800’s there were not Lumber Men’s Unions. Mill workers were frustrated and tired of their work conditions so a few workers decided to strike which then led to hundreds of protestors which shut down majority of the Mills along the Saginaw River and into Bay City.  They were protesting for a law for 10 hour days. The strike became violent which the Bay City police could no longer control due to the protestors armed with clubs and few pistols so the Lumbar Barons soon hired the Pinkerton detectives. The Pinkerton detectives failed and soon they were fired by the Barons and militia were called in from nearby cities. (Article provided by Professor French)

With the help of Governor Russel Alger the strike soon ended and the law was passed for 10 hour days. As Professor French stated the law was not effective as written. Like everything else there are always clauses. Because some workers feared that their job was in jeopardy they went back to work by signing the new contract that they thought it was for the 10 hour days also they did not an increase in pay.  Workers ended up keeping their jobs and the Mill owners didn’t lose much financially during the strike because they were not paying workers while on strike. Workers soon learned the loopholes of the contract and continued to work their long hours again.

Unfortunately,  in the late 1890’s many Saginaw and Bay Area Mills didn’t last due to short supply of forests. The strike didn’t end good for the workers and the Barons continued to keep work conditions the same and still profit. It’s sad that unappreciative and selflessness takes such a toll on workers and interfere with owners and workers relationships. We are thankful that we have the laws we do to protect us in our work environment. They may not be perfect but I can’t imagine working in the 1800’s like the mill worker’s did.


7 thoughts on “Saginaw Strike of 1885

  1. That’s very outrageous how the Mill workers were treated back in the 1800’s. It really did seem like slavery working 50 + hours for 6 days a week i can’t even imagine. On top of that they didn’t receive the fair amount of money that matched the hours they worked. I honestly feel like more workers should of joined the strike, because i believe it could of brought change. If there was no participation from the workers, how would the Mill owners who worked them like slaves make money. Most of the Mill workers were afraid to lose their job, and that’s why they didn’t participate in the strike. It’s crazy that the owners didn’t lose any type of profit from the strike. That means they probably didn’t pay some of the workers at all. I definitely couldn’t have lived back then .

  2. The strike against the lumber companies was warranted. The work that these folks did and what they got for it was not fair. No matter the circumstances they could not defend themselves, let alone ask for a raise or something change. The lumber barons did not care about the safety or well being of their workers, they used them for profit and that’s it. That is terrible, hard working people deserve something for their work. Instead, sometimes they got money they couldn’t even use! The fear of losing their jobs kept some workers loyal but I doubt anyone would have stayed working if they didn’t have to.

  3. The deplorable treatment of lumber workers during the 1880’s is a sad chapter in Michigan’s history. There was no balance of power between the lumber employers and their workers, as the bitter and crushing outcome of the 1885 Saginaw Valley Strike proved. Lumber workers fought against long hours, unregulated pay and horrible working conditions but were forcefully shut down in their efforts. Lumber employers and politicians controlled labor relations and even the Knights of Labor had no power to bring about any improvements.

  4. In reading through “The Great Water”, the lumbermen worked very long days starting at 5:00 am and going to 9:00 pm every day. The work was very strenuous. The different teams had different functions. Each function carried its own dangers. The lack of a union meant that there was no limit to hours worked and no protection for the workers if they became injured. The workers may not have gained any advantage in hours or pay but did gain some protection from injury or death. The unfortunate thing is that the strike came during the decline of lumber in the Saginaw and Bay City area. Any appreciable advantage gained by the workers was lost when the Barons moved their operation. Like most unions, the initial strikers would gain little advantage but subsequent contracts would improve the lot of the workers. I feel that the workers showed a lot of courage to stand up to the Barons higher guns at this time. All the workers would gain due to the efforts of the union in the past.

  5. Striking for better work conditions and better pay sounds very familiar as it relates to issues the workforce faces today. Unlike today, the working condiments were no where near as strenuous and dangerous as the conditions mill workers had to deal with. There was a slight glimpse of hope for change when the 10 hour law was passed. However, it was sad to see that even the law makers were seemingly against the workers as they only saw dollar signs. The need for lumber was huge, and the politicians saw that and but the economical need in front of the populations need.

  6. I think it’s cool to know that we had a pretty big lumber mill pretty much in our backyards for the Bay Area. It is highly unfortunate that the workers were almost tricked into signing the new contract as they thought it was for a decrease in hours. It’s also unfortunate because the business did not lose as much money as they should have due to the workers not being paid while on strike.

  7. I feel like people forget about the fact that working conditions have improved tremendously due to the people who are brave enough to go on strike. If it wasn’t for the members of these strike workers would probably be working 6-7 day a week normally.

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