ADM flour mill was built adjacent to the Great Northern grain elevator (top) in 1928. The Great Northern, Washburn-Crosby, and Wheeler (remnants below)elevators of Kelly Island form the most architecturally significant collection of grain elevators in the world. The Great Northern is threatened with an emergency demolition order currently being fought in court by The Campaign for Greater Buffalo. Photo (detail): Carol Highsmith 2018.
By Michael Pesarchick
Despite its massive size and iconic presence on the Buffalo waterfront, the Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM) plant on Ganson Street – home of the endangered Great Northern Elevator – employs relatively few people. According to Anthony Barker, President of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 36G, ADM employs roughly 60 union workers at the flour mill, about 20 per shift. Another 15 to 20 people work in management.
This is well below the 400-plus working at the General Mills cereal plant next door, and a far cry from the plant’s employment levels under original owner Pillsbury. The mill, opened in 1928, was conceived by Pillsbury to operate in conjunction with the Great Northern, built in 1897 as a storage and transfer elevator. Once the mill opened, the Great Northern was used only to receive and store wheat for the mill.
In April 1992 ADM entered into a joint-venture with Pillsbury to manage the plant. Within days after signing the agreement, ADM cut the number of grain millers working at the plant from 82 to 55, according to the union.
The union also claimed that ADM had cut wages by $2 per hour. It was enough to trigger a brief strike on April 23-24, 1992, when ADM threatened to bring in replacement workers. The Grain Millers union was able to reach an agreement with ADM in May 1992 that promised to rehire 17 fired employees and restore wages.
Before the 1992 Pillsbury/ADM joint agreement, the mill was for decades the center of Buffalo’s flour milling prowess. In 1951 it hosted a group of German labor leaders. “It is truly an experience to see such mass operation actually in operation,” Ludwig Diedrich of the Executive Council of Berlin Trade Unions told the Buffalo Evening News.
Later that decade, the Buffalo Courier-Express reported there were 26 grain mills and plants across Buffalo in 1958, with 1,600 employees belonging to the American Federation of Grain Millers (AFL-CIO) Local 110 chapter. Combined, the facilities were producing over 4,000 tons of flour per day.
The Great Northern Elevator was so efficient in tandem with the mill that Pillsbury sold its Pool Elevator on the Outer Harbor to Cargill the next year. Company president George S. Pillsbury announced a $600,000 investment in the mill in 1966. The investment came as Pillsbury’s domestic flour business had tripled since WWII, with production at the Buffalo plant doubling. “It is to our own interest to keep Buffalo strong as a milling center,” Pillsbury told the Evening News.
He acknowledged the plant, Pillsbury’s largest, was responsible for 34% of the company’s flour output, but also that it cost more to produce a bag of flour in Buffalo than any of the company's eight other mills. The investment would came at the cost of jobs. “Mr. Pillsbury sees this as an ‘opportunity to increase productivity,’ which clearly means that some jobs vacated by retirement will not be filled,” the Evening News reported.
That prediction came true. By 1972, when deadly five-alarm fire at the plant made the news, only 185 were employed.
The Great Northern photographed by Carol Highsmith in 2018. ADM has owned it and the adjacent flour mill since 1993.
Those employees were unionized, and the Great Northern, with the last grain scoopers in the nation, represented an easy cost center to eliminate. In 1981 Pillsbury bought the Standard Elevator on St. Clair Street, which had a vacuum system to unload ships and an efficient system of conveyor belts to distribute grain within. Closing the Great Northern cost 30 union jobs. Pillsbury official James Gelfand told the Evening News that it was not “economically feasible to renovate the elevator” and that the Great Northern Elevator was not able to handle truck deliveries. It would, apparently, be cheaper to unload and store grain at the Standard and to truck grain from there directly to the mill as needed, rather than to pay scoopers to assist with the unloading at the Great Northern.
Employment at the mill continued to decline through the 1980s. By 1989, Business First reported only 146 employees were employed at the Pillsbury Mill, 100 of which were members of the union. Pillsbury and ADM entered into the joint venture which caused the job cuts and brief strike three years later.
The agreement that ended the strike would be the last between ADM and the Grain Millers for some time. In February 1996, members of the International Longshoremen’s Association, Local 1286, which represented the idled scoopers and the truck drivers, accused ADM of union busting and threatening more job cuts, including running the Standard Elevator with five employees instead of 13, the News reported. Local 1286 teamed with Local 36 to petition then-presidential candidate Bob Dole, who had financial ties to ADM, to support the unions.
That was also the period when ADM was attempting to get a demolition permit for the Great Northern the first time. In 1995 the scoopers and grain millers joined the Preservation Coalition of Erie County (the spiritual ancestor of The Campaign for Greater Buffalo) in the successful effort to fend off the demolition. In March 1996 a union-preservationist rally was held on Court Street denouncing ADM and its attempt to demolish the elevator and eliminate jobs.