William James Conners, Sr. - LINKS

William J. Conners
and the
Grain Scoopers' Strike of 1899

Irish War on Buffalo Waterfront was One of City's Most Dramatic Chapters
Excerpts from article by Max McCarthy in The Buffalo News, Nov. 4, 1990

A virtual war had been brewing for decades. The causes of the conflict were to be found in labor conditions that saw recently arrived immigrants from Ireland unloading iron ore with shovels, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for a wage of $1 a day.

Defending the interests of management was William J. Conners.

Conners was born in 1857. As a boy in the chiefly Irish old First Ward, he lost a thumb and received the nickname "Fingy." He was employed as a dock laborer and as a longshoreman.

Following the deaths of his mother and father at young ages, Fingy Conners inherited the family's saloon on the Ohio Basin. An additional financial inheritance enabled him to establish a second saloon in the same neighborhood.

Drawing on his experience on the lakes and knowledge of the waterfront, the saloon keeper conceived of a new system of freight handling by middleman. He offered to unload freight for companies at a fixed rate. They would no longer have tot hire their own crews to do this heavy work.

The idea caught on. At one point Conners employed as many as 6,000 men. In the middle 1890s he expanded his operations to include the booming grain handling business.

Fingy Conners frowned on independent unions on the docks,.


In 1899 the long-brewing unrest on the docks against the system of which Conners was a part hit a peak. The scoopers threw down the gauntlet. They formed their own union and called a strike in the spring of 1899 that attracted national attention

The union leaders called a mass meeting at the parish hall of St. Bridget's Church on Louisiana Street. A commotion of cheering started at the back of the hall and Bishop James E. Quigley, then head of the diocese, pushed his way to the platform. In a clear, dispassionate address, he set the situation before them. He finished by advising them never to work for Conners again until he had utterly given over the grain business.

A committee of citizens, headed by the bishop, met with the carrying companies and arranged a new system

The Grain Scoopers' Strike of 1899
An Excerpt from "High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York." by Mark Goldman. Pub. by State U. of New York Press, Albany, 1983, pp. 159-60

Like the other labor conflicts involving skilled and semiskilled labor,the strike of the grain scoopers indicated that more was at work in turn-of-the-century strikes than simple conflicts between capital and labor, employers and employees.

The strike of the grain scoopers in 1899 was not against the owners of the grain elevators, but rather against the local saloon owners who, acting as labor contractors (an Irish version of the Italian padrone system), had come to control labor on Buffalo's waterfront.

The strike of scoopers against the domination of the saloon keeper-labor contractors, like those within the German breweries, often had the overtones of an intra-ethnic and even intra-class conflict.

No contracts on formal work arrangements existed on the docks. Whenever a freighter loaded with grain arrived in Buffalo's harbor,hundreds of men, primarily Irish and Italian, flocked to the docks hoping to be picked by the boat captain to unload the grain. Most of the time was spent waiting, first for the boat and then to be picked. While they waited, the men congregated in the dozens of local saloons that clustered around the dock area.

Taking advantage of this large labor pool, several saloon keepers became intermediaries between the workers and the ships' captains, on the take from both, as the former sought jobs and the latter workers. The longshoremen and the grain scoopers were virtually indentured to the saloon keepers,who not only found them jobs, but insisted on paying them in the saloon itself, thereby encouraging them to spend their earnings in the saloon.

It is not surprising that, given his extensive control, the waterfront saloon keeper emerged as a dominant political and economic force in late nineteenth century Buffalo.

The most powerful was William Conners, a former sailor and longshoreman, and a tavern owner in South Buffalo. By 1895, "Fingy"Conners, so named because he had lost two fingers on his left hand in a waterfront accident, owned his own brewery and was the publisher of two Buffalo newspapers. His longtime control of the work force on the waterfront was jeopardized, however, when in 1899 the grain scoopers, joined subsequently by the longshoremen, struck.

Conners didn't have a chance. For now, unlike during the railroad strikes, the strikers had the support of a wide variety of interest groups. Grain elevator operators and railroad companies were eager
to resume the shipment of grain, and after several months began to bring extensive pressure to bear on Buffalo interests to settle the strike. Conners was the perfect scapegoat, the man everybody loved to hate.

William James Conners, Sr. - LINKS

Temperance groups, both Catholic and Protestant, viewing the strike as an opportunity to attack the saloon, rallied to the cause. Ministers from every faith and denomination in the city lent support. Political reformers jumped at the chance to chasten one of Buffalo's strongest ward politicians. Aristocratic reformers were eager to side with such a respectable working class movement.

The pressure was overwhelming, and in May 1899, after a month-long strike during which Buffalo's harbor had come to a complete close (wheat was backed up for three weeks in Duluth, Minnesota), Conners gave in. The grain scoopers had won: Conners and the other saloon labor contractors recognized the Longshoremen's Association as the bargaining unit for the scoopers and longshoremen.

As important, the strike ended the use of the saloon as a hiring hall and garnered a guarantee that wages would be paid in an office and not in the saloon. While the scoopers and longshoremen drew strength and satisfaction from the victory, most people construed the strike as the defeat of Conners and what he represented -- the saloon, the ward, the lurking power of Irish immigrant vitality -- rather than as a workers' victory. Conners didn't need the victory anyway. By the time the strike was settled he had already lost interest in the docks. In the future he would devote himself to his newspapers and to politics.

Illustration source: "Men of Buffalo," Chicago: A. N. Marquis & Co., 1902
Page by Chuck LaChiusa
...| ...Home Page ...| ..Buffalo Architecture Index...| ..Buffalo History Index...| .. E-Mail ...| ..