Thursday, April 2, 2009

Grain shovelers

On pages 125-126, I discuss the grain shovelers (also known as grain scoopers), who were workers hired to shovel, scoop and sweep piles of "loose" grain (grain in bulk) so that they were within the reach of the buckets attached to the elevating leg after it had been lowered into the grain-bearing vessel and turned on. Because the elevating leg was "stiff," and couldn't move in any direction other than down or up (in or out of the hull), many such workers were needed, and they were forced to work as fast as possible. The constant presence of grain dust was also a health-hazard if breathed in and a potential explosive if ignited.

Before the invention of the grain elevator, a great many workers were also required, and were required to work hard and fast, but they were tasked with lifting, carrying and storing sacks of grain, not shoveling or sweeping up grain in bulk. No grain dust was involved then. In addition to introducing grain dust into the workplace, the grain elevator required fewer workers than a "traditional" grain-storage warehouse. As the number of grain elevators grew, so did the numbers of unemployed stevedores and dockworkers.

In 1862, the grain shovelers of New York went out on strike to protest against the recent adoption of mechanized grain elevators in that city's harbor. The first grain elevators in New York -- but not in Brooklyn, where stationary elevators had been built since 1847 -- were in fact floating elevators. According to John Foord, author of The Life and Public Services of Simon Sterne (MacMillan, 1903), there were six such elevators in use in New York when the 2,000 shovelers went out on strike. According to Foord, a non-mechanized grain dock required a dozen men, one horse and five days to unload a grain-bearing vessel, while a steam-powered grain elevator only required nine men and two days to do the same job. Simon Sterne had apparently counseled the grain workers of 1862 not to go out on strike, but to use the time that remained until their jobs were completely phased out by staying at their jobs and saving money, so that when their jobs were gone they could purchase a grain elevator of their own. They ignored his advice and went out on strike (Simon Sterne, pp. 45-47).

The pressure upon grain shovelers became even greater in 1865, when engineers working for the Watson Elevator in Buffalo came up with the "power shovel." Powered by the elevating leg itself, the power-shovel used a series of ropes to pull shovels full of grain towards the leg's buckets, thus speeding up the process even more. Fewer shovelers were needed, but those who remained had to work harder and the work was more dangerous: those ropes could easily coil around and snap off a man's leg.

As this video shows, "power shovels" were still in use at Buffalo, New York, as recently as the 1990s.

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