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The motion on the floor in the basement of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on Saturday, October 14, was this: Should strikers at the Domino Sugar Plant on Kent Avenue fold up the big blue tarps that have sheltered them from rain and snow for the past 17 months and accept their employer's new contract proposal?
It was commonly agreed that it wasn't much of an offer. Also, that their chances of winning were fading.
"We've got to get on with our lives," several strikers said. "If we go back under this [contract], there won't be a union in two years. They'll pick us off one by one," another responded. The debate raged for four hours. At home, the Mets were on TV, headed for a World Series. No one got up to leave.
"It got hot," said Carrie Ann Daniels, 47, a Domino worker for 20 years.
It started on June 15, 1999, when 284 strikers, filled with fight and confidence, walked off the job. A 1992 strike had lasted 28 weeks, they said. This one could be even longer.
Still, they were members of the International Longshoremen's Association, AFL-CIO, Local 1814, they said proudly, a tough union with plenty of clout. Past contracts had won guaranteed work weeks and a $15-an-hour wage. The ILA had shrunk dramatically as the city's shipping ports dried up, but their shop remained strong.
They believed in their business agent, a man named Joe Crimi who stuck by them, encouraging them to make up their own minds. When the employer, the British firm of Tate & Lyle, demanded 100 layoffs and the right to subcontract all work, the members hooted and voted with their feet.
Through the heat of their first summer on the line, they were buoyed by ear-wrenching salutes from the air horns of trucks rumbling along the avenue. They took taunts and hurled them back at the rent-a-cops in paramilitary black who trained cameras on them, hoping to catch frustrated acts of violence. By common consent, they checked their tempers. When cold weather came, they rented a trailer and hooked up a generator for warmth.
Still, any time you passed their picket lines that winter there were dozens of them standing outside layered in denim and sweatshirts. They were a polyglot crew, proud of their diversity: whites with Italian, Russian, and Irish last names; Hispanics and native-born and Caribbean blacks. Many were women. They called themselves the United Nations.
Their average age was late forties. Most had spent their entire working lives inside the hulking red-brick plant with the huge smokestack dominating the Brooklyn shore by the Williamsburg Bridge. Their job was to turn raw cane into granulated sugar, and they had done it so well that their product, in its familiar yellow box, was a sign of quality in every kitchen.
As Christmas approached, unemployment benefits were almost exhausted with still no sign of settlement. On December 15, Russian-born John Alschen, 62, whose childhood was spent in forced Nazi labor, did his picket duty in a chill drizzle, then went home and cut his wrists. His son said his father feared he would never get another ironworker's job. The strike's toll was also measured in shattered friendships. In late spring, more than 80 workers, worn down and desperate, returned to work.
The hardiest remained. To mark the strike's first anniversary, they picketed the British consul in Manhattan, joined by 200 supporters, including their most stalwart backers, Teamsters Local 282, whose members refused to pour concrete for a new Domino facility.
But while the city's Central Labor Council gave what it could, the strikers awaited support from the labor powers in Washington. They had asked their international union to get the AFL-CIO to approve national strike funding and a nationwide boycott of Domino. The AFL-CIO was silent, however. The strikers were puzzled. They never saw ILA president John Bowers on their picket line. They had just one letter from him, sent in May, pledging $50,000 and a boycott.
In September, 30 Domino workers traveled to ILA headquarters at 17 Battery Place looking for Bowers. "We just walked in. We didn't have an appointment," said Charlie Milan, 60, a Domino mechanic for 36 years.
ILA president since 1987, Bowers is a second-generation leader. His father ran the ILA's old "Pistol Local" on the West Side docks, so-named because guns settled most disputes. Bowers's own name was atop a 1990 federal civil racketeering suit alleging mob domination of the ILA. Bowers, the suit said, had pocketed money from a ghost employee scam and had once even sought the murder of a rival. The union quickly settled the lawsuit, agreeing to an outside monitor over several locals, including 1814. Bowers remained in power, with no charges filed.
The ILA is still strong, records show: Last year it had 47,000 members and net assets of $51 million. Bowers did well too, receiving $330,000 in salary and $55,000 to travel and buy lunch.
Cornered in his office, Bowers assured his visitors that he was doing all he could. They took the train back to their picket line.
Back at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, the debate finally ebbed and a vote was taken: 54 to 46, to stay on strike. "They are a tough, courageous bunch," said union business agent Joe Crimi last week. "You have to be proud of them."