Saginaw Valley Lumber Strike of 1885 Historical Marker
In 1885, Bay City was home to dozens of sawmills and widely regarded as "the lumber capital of the world." Renowned historians David Roediger and Phillip Foner declared the Saginaw Valley strike, along with an 1881 strike in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, as the "most spectacular" of the many strikes by lumber workers during the late 19th century.
Backstory and Context
"10 hours or No Sawdust" –the unified chant of the Lumber Strike in the Saginaw Valley in 1885.
Michigan Public Act 137 was passed and restricted a day’s work to ten-hour workdays and was to become effective 90 days after it was approved. However, workers thought that the mill owners were to immediately comply by it. All of this resulting in the infamous Lumber Strike, which lasted from July to September. After July 4th, all but three or four mills returned to work. One of these mills, McEwen’s, was cleaning out the boilers while the others had a lack of workers to appear. One of the workers from McEwen’s, waved and jokingly shouted to a nearby mill, “Hurrah for ten hours,” as he was leaving. This resulted in the beginning of the strike which is said to have officially originated that day below the Bay City area.
Governor Russel Alger of Michigan urged F. O. Gullifer, who is the Commissioner and Secretary of the State Labor Bureau, to investigate the incident. His findings provided that the key players of the strike were Mr. Barry and Mr. Blinn, who are responsible for creating the chant. However, Mr. Barry and Mr. Blinn had different opinions of the strike as Blinn aimed for a peaceful protest that did not break laws. While Barry had different objectives and would take all the responsibility of anything that would have occurred. However, both just wanted ten-hour workdays as well as getting paid for overtime. Through Gullifer’s investigation, he would talk to men at the mill yards or in their homes, saw county and city officials, interviewed many businessmen, and attended two public meetings.
In addition to the investigation, Governor Russel Alger was quick to call troops in from Flint, Port Huron, Detroit and Alpena to save the mills. He did this mainly because he, himself, was a wealthy lumberman with many mills in the north. However, officials within the Bay City and Saginaw region were reluctant with having outside help. This resulted one hundred fifty Chicago Pinkerton “special police” being on duty at the mills and the strike lasting until September when the Act would take effect.
During the strike, the mill workers were quick to become violent as well as growing in numbers. If anyone refused to join the strike, then they would be shunned from the rest of the lumbermen community as this was stated directly from Mr. Barry. In the initial days of the violent protesting, three individuals were arrested, and one was assaulted by the Chief of Police. Upon reporting being assaulted by a police officer, the Chief committed suicide which did not resolve the strike any faster but furthered the rebellion. Between local officials and those on strike, there was little progress either way.
Through this investigation and learning of the lack of progress on getting the mills back up and running, Gullifer was active in seeking a way to end the strike. He discovered a significant problem which was the relationship between the mill owners and the lumbermen. Those that worked in the mills were there to provide for their families and the owners themselves were aiming at the profit that could made. One of the reasons for the owners to slowly abide by their employees demands was due to the fact that the need for lumber rose which means the profit gained grew as the strike continued. However, Gulifer was focused on forming a "family relationship" between the workers and the owners that would help resolve the issues between the two.
Bay-Journal.com. Saginaw Valley Lumber Strike of 1885, Bay Journal. November 8th 2008. Accessed March 18th 2020. http://bay-journal.com/bay/1he/pdf/lumbermens-strike-1885.pdf.
Clark, Rachel. Ten-Hour Work Day, Seeking Michigan. September 14th 2014. Accessed March 18th 2020. https://seekingmichigan.org/look/2014/09/16/ten-hour-work-day.
Roediger, David and Philip Sheldon Foner, Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day. Verso, 1989, 133.
Saginaw Valley Lumber Strike of 1885., Bay Journal. November 8th 2008. Accessed March 18th 2020. http://bay-journal.com/bay/1he/writings/lumber-strike-1885.html.