Williamsburg’s Gen-X hipsters may believe they live in the new Greenwich
Village, but along this Brooklyn neighborhood’s still-gritty waterfront the latest turf battle is not between yuppie and artist. Instead, the latest dispute pits two groups with their own history of enmity: the men and women who work at the Domino
Sugar refinery and Tate & Lyle, the British company that owns it. Nearly three
months after more than 350 union members walked out of the Domino complex that stretches along the East River between Grand Avenue and South 6th Street, the strikers walk the pavement under the rooftop gaze of video-camera-wielding security guards, and they expect to be there a long time. The strike, said a dozen members of Local 1814 of the International Longshoremen’s Association picketing outside the refinery, is not about money, but the result of what they described as Tate & Lyle’s unacceptable demands since their last contract expired in October. The company is insisting, the union says, on the right to hire unlimited temporary workers, the elimination of guaranteed hours, the end of weekend pay, and the giveback of three holidays.
Even more foreboding, say strikers, the company plans by early next year to replace Brooklyn’s raw-sugar refining operation with a processing system using partially refined sugar syrup, a strategy they say would result in the loss of about 100 jobs.
“They kept pounding us,” says Joe Crimi, 1814 vice president. “After nine months of this shit, I said, ‘Let’s strike.’ ” The vote by the local, he says, was loud and unanimous. “They were just screaming, ‘Let’s go.’ ” Tate & Lyle spokesperson Margaret Blamberg would not comment on the specifics of the strike, but she says, “We feel we’ve made very fair proposals to the union and we’re just going to see how it unfolds.”
Union and Tate & Lyle reps did gather August 17 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel near LaGuardia Airport to meet with a federal mediator, but the talks, the first since the strike began, went nowhere. Tate & Lyle negotiators were only willing to speak with the mediator. “They wouldn’t even talk with us,” Crimi says. “We were in one room and they were in another.”
On August 20, Tate & Lyle wrote a letter to the strikers explaining that employees have a “right not to strike and to cross a picket line.” While the company makes a point of telling strikers it is not asking them to quit the union, the letter does include the telephone number of the National Labor Relations Board office in Brooklyn and, on a separate sheet, a sample resignation letter. “It just pissed the membership off even more,” Crimi snickers.
A worldwide sweetener giant, Tate & Lyle operates in more than 50 countries and controls 20 percent of U.S. distribution, mostly through Domino. The company crippled the union at its A.E. Staley corn syrup subsidiary in Decatur, Illinois, during a bitter and violent three-year lockout of more than 700 workers that ended in 1996. The strike at the Williamsburg plant, in fact, is the third since Tate & Lyle bought Domino in 1988. Like clockwork, the union says, every time their contracts are up, the company forces a strike.
“We were out for five minutes and they had security on us,” says Joe Badowski, a sugar boiler and a shop steward. “They had it all planned.”
In fact, Tate & Lyle seems to have been preparing for the Williamsburg strike even before the union’s contract ran out. According to a September 3, 1998, article in North Dakota’s Fargo Forum, Tate & Lyle bought 600,000 tons of refined sugar, enough to replace up to seven months of Williamsburg’s production, from rival United Sugars Corp. The sugar was brought to Domino’s Baltimore refinery.
Three months after the walkout began, Crimi says, his members are pissed off at the lack of progress. There has already been one striker arrested for allegedly throwing a rock through the windshield of a truck (the same striker was injured, Crimi says, when a truck pulling out of the refinery struck the barricade she was standing behind as it turned onto Kent Street). “These people don’t take this as anything but [Tate & Lyle] wanting to break Brooklyn,” he says. “At some point in time I’m not going to be able to control them. At some point we’re going to see violence and it’s going to be against management or the plant. All I keep hearing here is, ‘We’ve had enough of this bullshit.’ ”
Despite the occasional non-union-driven truck pulling out from the Williamsburg plant, sugar production there is a fraction of normal output, the union says, perhaps as low as 1 million pounds a week, compared to the usual 4 million pounds a day. Two weeks ago, when one pair of trucks was followed out by a van carrying security guards with a video camera, the drivers and guards heard shop steward Charlie Milan’s wrath: “That’s right motherfuckers, keep filming!”
“There’s no union people in there,” said Milan, with 35 years the most senior Domino worker in Brooklyn. “All they’ve got is scabs, foremen, and
supervisors. They’ve even got office girls driving forklifts.” Tate & Lyle’s Blamberg would not give details on the level of production. “We’re still delivering sugar to our customers,” she says. “We’re prepared to operate as we have with the union on strike.” Production could reach a more critical stage during the winter, as Domino’s union contracts expire at its Baltimore refinery in December and at its New Orleans refinery in February.
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.”