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The Scoopers Strike of 1899

There were 1,500 grain scoopers in the late 1890s, working hard at their dusty jobs in Buffalo's Grain Elevator District. Yet under the "company store" policy, their paychecks were controlled by the owners of the many saloons that lined the streets of the First Ward. Buffalo, at that time, had nearly one tavern for every 1,000 people.

"In the early days, grain ships arriving in the harbor hired a scooper boss to furnish gangs of scoopers made up mostly of Irish immigrants," wrote Henry H. Baxter in "Grain Elevators," published by the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society in 1980.

"Usually a scooper boss owned a saloon, and perhaps a boardinghouse," Baxter wrote. "After a week's work, he paid off the men in his gang at the saloon, with deductions for bar bills and the boardinghouse if they had use of these facilities -- and they usually did."

Baxter, 88, is an engineer and lives in Williamsville. His family founded A.E. Baxter Engineering Co., a company that specialized in the design of grain mills, in 1896.

As late as 1895, the average scooper -- who worked seasonally -- earned about $292 a year, or about $5 for every day worked, minus deductions paid to the scooper boss.

The scoopers went on strike early in May 1899 when the boss of the saloon bosses, William "Fingey" Conners, announced a 50 percent pay cut. The striking scoopers, according to Jerry M. Malloy, editor of Buffalo History Gazette, had two factors on their side: time and Bishop James E. Quigley, head of the Catholic church in Buffalo.

By May 12, 43 ships carrying 3.6 million bushels of grain were waiting to be unloaded in the Buffalo harbor. The supply was also backed up, with 24 million bushels awaiting shipment in Duluth for three weeks -- in addition to supplies at other ports.

The shipper's association brought pressure on Conners to resolve the issue. Bishop Quigley, himself a former dockworker, opened St. Bridget's Catholic Church on the corner of Fulton and Louisiana streets for the strikers to use as a headquarters and also assisted with strategy. He called for all dockworkers to honor the strike.

By the end of May, the strike was over. The shippers' association contacted the union and Quigley, and permanently broke the saloon boss system. The new union, International Longshoremen's Association-Grain Shovelers Local 109, would represent the grain scoopers from then on.

Conners, who began his career in the lowest jobs on the waterfront, had built a fortune largely through his own talents and the labor of grain scoopers and packet handlers. Though no longer a force in the waterfront contract labor system, he had already diversified his fortune by buying the Magnus Beck Brewery, the Vulcanite Asphalt Paving Company, large tracts of land in South Buffalo, which he developed as residential neighborhoods, and the Buffalo Enquirer, Morning Record and Buffalo Courier newspapers.

He moved into a mansion on Delaware Avenue and created the Courier-Express; he died in 1929.

-- Compiled by Jerry Malloy, Buffalo History Gazette

email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com