Sweet and Sour


At 8 A.M. on April 21, a 30-foot inflatable rat stood on Kent Avenue in Brooklyn, surveying the unusually active scene. Fifty protesters—many armed with “on strike” placards—shouted and waved as passing motorists signaled their sympathy with their horns. On most days, only six or seven protesters work this picket line, which runs 24 hours outside the Domino Sugar factory in Williamsburg. But thanks to the Teamsters and other local unions, attendance at these sidewalk rallies is growing.

The morning’s crowd not only raised the noise level on this corner, but also the strikers’ spirits. Domino Sugar’s workers have been on strike for 10 months, but still there has been no 500-person protest, no well-publicized boycott, no citywide outcry. Meanwhile, the 289 workers of Local 1814—who once earned $15 to $21 an hour—fight to maintain their solidarity as their situation becomes dire. Their unemployment insurance checks ran out in February. And more recently, close to 40 coworkers have crossed the picket line.

But there have also been a few signs of hope in the last couple of months. Both sympathy and self-interest have brought out members of other unions. They are angry about what they say is nonunion construction of storage tanks, which recently began on the Domino site. Teamsters Local 282, which drives the dump trucks that deliver construction supplies, have become regulars at these protests. Laborers Local 79 came today, too. And Asbestos Workers Local 78, also part of the Laborers Union, brought the blow-up rat.

All morning, protesters fled the freezing rain for the shelter of a nearby trailer. Inside, soggy men—and a few soggy women—sipped coffee and debated recent developments. Decorating the trailer’s walls was both the good news and the bad news. The good news included a recent letter from the president of the International Longshoremen’s Association, the Domino workers’ parent union. The ILA’s president has promised to add $50,000 to the dwindling strike fund. He also said he would urge John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO’s president, to launch a national boycott of Domino.

Then there was the bad news: a hand-scrawled, insult-sprinkled poster with the names of workers who recently quit the union. “They became scabs—it was a terrible thing,” says Joseph Crimi, vice president of Local 1814. “When you’re out here 10 months and you don’t have money, you break.” Still, Crimi adds, “They’re not our brothers in there no more.”

Outside, the heartier union members braved the downpour to broadcast their feelings toward every truck that turned into the factory. “Scumbag!” they shouted. “Dirtbag!” Stationed on a nearby roof, a man kept a video camera pointed on the strikers. Workers on the picket line have confronted cameras for months, but the nonstop surveillance still enrages them. “I’ve got a video you might want to see!” yelled one Teamster. “It’s of your mother!”

The leaders of the Domino strike say support from fellow union members has brought new momentum to their movement. But they also say that Tate & Lyle, Domino Sugar’s parent company, which is based in England, has not budged at the negotiating table. The company has said it needs to reduce its number of employees in order to remain competitive, while the union insists that Tate & Lyle is determined to destroy it.

“New Yorkers have to come out strong against this,” says Crimi. “To have a foreign corporation do this to American workers is a disgrace. There will continue to be a domino effect if they can continue to get away with this in New York.”