By Alex Distefano
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Domino Brooklyn is the lone survivor of an industry that was once the largest in New York City, beginning with the first sugar refinery established in 1730 on Liberty Street in what is now Lower Manhattan. Domino's link to Williamsburg goes back to 1857 when William and Frederick Havemeyer opened a refinery at South 3rd Street, the site of today's plant.
The devastation of Southern refineries during the Civil War led to a concentration of sugar refining in New York, so much so that from 1870 until World War I the industry was the most profitable in the city. By 1907, the Havemeyers' then American Sugar Refining Company and the sugar trust it dominated controlled 98 percent of U.S. sugar production. But consolidation, the Depression, and the exodus of manufacturing from the city after World War II led to the downward spiral of sugar refining here, leaving only Domino.
The striking union members outside the Domino plant reflect much of the multiethnic makeup of Williamsburg. "We have the League of Nations here," said Milan. A good number of those from Europe are Polish, including veterans of the Solidarity movement. Many live in Williamsburg's now trendy Northside and in adjacent Greenpoint.
But there are new neighbors. The vast majority of the predominantly young, white folks who have turned Bedford Avenue into Brooklyn's version of Madison, Wisconsin, know next to nothing about the Domino plant and even less about the strike.
At a booth in Diner, a much-lauded new eatery, Kate Huling, a twentysomething accessories design company partner, said while she knew there was a strike at the nearby Domino plant, she wasn't surprised by the lack of interest in the situation by those recent, across-the-East-River transplants to Williamsburg. "It's kind of like a college town, where people are oriented toward the campus and fraternities, but they have no idea what's going on in the community," Huling lamented. "People are here to be near the city, rather than be part of the community."
Back on the picket line, Charlie Milan says he's especially disgusted that British Tate & Lyle wants back three holidays President's Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans' Day. "These are all our national holidays," he spews. "We fought for this country. To have something like this is a slap in the fucking face." Other strikers walking in front of Domino's ancient char house so named because the company uses charred animal bones to filter its sugar say they're in for the long haul. With an average of 20 years of employment at Domino, they say they have sugar in their blood. "When I came here 26 years ago, little did I realize that I'd get into sugar," says Badowski. "I became a sugar man."