Battle of Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar
Now well into its eighth month, the
International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1814’s strike
against the Domino Sugar refinery in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn
is a good example of what workers can expect in the brave new world of global
capitalism—and perhaps show what forms of solidarity will be needed to
The enemy is British conglomerate Tate and Lyle, PLC., a sprawling international
sugar giant with over 22,000 employees spread across more than 50 nations.
Tate and Lyle acquired Domino Sugar in 1988.
Tate and Lyle earned its notorious anti-labor reputation in this country at
another of its 1988 acquisitions: A.E. Staley Manufacturing, a corn processor
in Decatur, Illinois. When Staley’s contract with the Allied Industrial
Workers (AIW) 837 expired, Tate and Lyle demanded a series of concessions
abridging seniority rights, establishing rotating 12-hour shifts in the plant,
and reducing the grievance procedure to a charade. They also demanded an unlimited
right to outsource union jobs to nonunion contractors.
The Staley workers responded with outrage. Initially they refused to accept
the company’s demands and adopted a “work-to-rule” campaign
in the plant—following management rules and instructions so literally
as to drastically reduce production. The company responded in June 1993 with
a lockout of the AIW workers.
The brutal lockout lasted over two years and spawned a labor solidarity effort
that reached throughout the U.S. and beyond. Joe Dwyer of the Teamsters, then
president of the Tate and Lyle World Union Council, remarked that “I
believe that what Tate and Lyle is doing in Decatur, Illinois is the leading
edge of an assault that all Tate and Lyle unions will face. If Tate and Lyle
is successful in Decatur, it will weaken the rest of us.”
But by the end of 1995, the exhausted workers of Decatur, in a sharply divided
vote, accepted the company’s terms. The union was effectively crippled.
Dwyer’s observation would be put to the test.
The labor unions representing Tate and
Lyle workers are relatively well connected, nationally and internationally.
At the global level workers in Tate and Lyle’s U.S. subsidiaries are
linked to their brothers and sisters overseas through their shared membership
in the Geneva-based International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant,
Catering, Tobacco, and Allied Workers’ Unions (IUF). The federation facilitates
cooperation among its member unions in the food and hospitality industries
in 119 nations. IUF member unions represent about 10 million workers globally.
Organized under IUF auspices on a regional level is the Tate and Lyle North
American Workers Council. The Council includes locals representing Tate and
Lyle workers drawn from the PACE (Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy
Workers, which the AIW entered through a series of mergers), UFCW (United
Food and Commercial Workers), Teamsters, and the ILA.
In 1998, Tate and Lyle consolidated its North American sugar holdings (Domino,
Western Sugar, and Canada’s Redpath) under a single firm, the Decatur-based
Tate and Lyle North American Sugars (TLNAS).
Aggressive moves against member unions inspired an emergency meeting of the
Tate and Lyle North American Workers Council in New York in May 1999. The
members believed that the company was attempting to standardize its bargaining
agreements by leveling down conditions across the Tate and Lyle system. The
Brooklyn Domino refinery appeared to be Tate and Lyle’s next target of
The Brooklyn refinery was the ideal target for two reasons. First, among the
Domino refineries, its contract expired earliest. The ILA members had already
been working without a contract since October 1988. Breaking the workers’
resistance there could pave the way for concessions from the other Domino
Second, the refinery was planning a major technological change. Whereas the
refinery had in the past brought in raw sugar cane, and melted it down before
refining it for consumption, now the company planned to ship in liquefied
product from their Baltimore refinery. The restructuring would eliminate dozens
of jobs in any event, and provide the company with a pretext for a general
renegotiation of conditions and practices in the refinery.
The company presented the Domino workers with a familiar set of demands. “It’s
a union-busting contract similar to what they did at Staley, almost identical,”
said Joe Crimi, ILA 1814 vice president who represents the Domino employees.
It was all there, the same as the Staley package. Virtually unlimited outsourcing.
Major job reductions. Violations of the seniority system. Rotating shifts,
designed to maintain continuous production while eliminating overtime pay.
Hamstrung shop stewards.
As Crimi, a former forklift operator in the refinery, observed, “There
is no way to accept what this company is asking for, because everything they
are asking for would wipe out the union. All it would be was a union in name.”
Tate and Lyle didn’t negotiate; Tate and Lyle issued demands. For over
eight months the company refused any gestures toward its workers on these
The Domino workers were enraged by the company’s attitude. The vote to
strike was unanimous. The ILA walked out on June 15, 1999.
The workers in the Domino refinery felt
insulted and betrayed. Though the refinery had a history of labor conflicts,
in recent years the ILA members had reached out to management, in an effort
to create a less adversarial atmosphere. Before the current troubles, workers
reported, the union hadn’t pursued a grievance in arbitration for years.
Furthermore, the workers had pursued an extensive cooperative effort with
management to achieve ISO (International Standards Organization) certification,
enabling Domino to sell its products in new markets. In the course of that
cooperation management collected an enormous amount of information on workers’
job duties—information the workers believe the company used in its planning
to restructure and eliminate jobs. “We made Domino what it is,”
said machine attendant Carrieann Daniels, 47, whose job is now marked for
elimination by the company.
“This is not an economic strike. This is a strike over job security.
This is our future,” argued Charlie Milan, 59, a packaging mechanic.
Job security is the main issue for the strikers, the issue that ties together
concerns like outsourcing and attacks on seniority. While the technological
changes can’t be prevented, the company has already announced the planned
elimination of dozens of jobs unrelated to the production changes.
The company’s demand to eliminate guarantees of 40 hours of work per
week is an especially sore point for the Domino workers. “I have 36 years
of service and they want to make me a part-time worker,” said Milan.
Other demands, less serious economically, add insult to injury. In a plant
with a significant number of veterans, the company has demanded the elimination
of Veterans Day as a paid holiday. Demands like this remind the workers that
they are working for a foreign—in this case, British—multinational.
The Domino workers had no strike fund,
only bitter determination to rely on. The response has been remarkable: union
and company sources both confirm that to date, not a single ILA member has
crossed the picket line.
Part of that solidarity can be attributed to the company’s ham-handed
initial moves. Not only did Tate and Lyle make no conciliatory gestures toward
the workers’ demands, but they also sent out a packet of information
to each worker’s home inviting them to cross the picket line and instructing
them how to begin proceedings to decertify the union.
But determination is hardly enough to face down a multinational like Tate
and Lyle. Tate and Lyle has attempted to continue operations at the refinery
relying on forepeople, management personnel, and office workers. Production
is down substantially—strikers estimate it at 10 percent pre-strike levels.
The company remains defiant and has announced plans for even greater job reductions
as part of any strike settlement. “We’ve learned how to run the
plant in the absence of union members, tightened up work rules and procedures,”
said company spokesperson Margaret Blamberg.
Blamberg said the company’s demands for increased efficiency were necessary
in the face of global pressures on sugar industry profits, but she declined
to say whether or not the Brooklyn refinery had been profitable before the
These increased threats to job security are viewed ominously on the picket
line. Most of the workers are middle-aged and have families to support; few
are optimistic about starting new careers.
The picket line has been visited by tragedy as a result. On December 15, Brooklyn
Domino employee John Alschen, 62, went home from the picket line and committed
suicide. Alschen’s son told the New York Daily News that his father
feared he would never find another job if he was laid off at this age.
Given the company’s stubborn resistance,
the Domino workers have reached out in new directions for solidarity from
labor elsewhere, whether locally or internationally.
With unemployment benefits running out, the Central Labor Rehabilitation Council
(CLRC), a social agency of the New York City Central Labor Council, is stepping
up its support for the strikers.
In addition to providing services like counseling for stress, substance abuse,
and financial planning, the CLRC is soliciting contributions for a strike
fund from CLC member locals. Funds will be used to help strikers facing evictions
or medical emergencies.
“Our support for the Domino workers is modeled after our effort in the
past, supporting the Daily News strikers,” said Howard Van Jones
of the CLRC, referring to the hard-fought and highly publicized 1990 strike.
“This is major; it’s one of the last major manufacturers in Brooklyn.”
For a period in February, the company came under additional pressure. It provoked
a walkout on February 7 in its Chalmette, Louisiana, refinery, by offering
workers there a thinly veiled version of the Brooklyn settlement. “Tate
and Lyle broke Staley and now they’re trying to do it to Brooklyn and
Chalmette,” said Bruce D’Antoni, president of UFCW 1101, who represents
the Chalmette workers. But two weeks later the 220 workers there ended their
strike, largely on the company’s terms.
Through the IUF, what Tate and Lyle is doing in its U.S. refineries is being
communicated to union workers around the world. Unions representing Tate and
Lyle employees from Mexico to Britain to Australia have bombarded the company’s
London headquarters with demands that Tate and Lyle come to terms with its
Brooklyn workers. The picket trailer bulletin board contains letters of support
from unions as far afield as Japan and the Czech Republic.
The workers of the ILA 1814 see theirs as part and parcel of a global struggle.
“What the unions need to do is to learn to get together and fight these
transnational companies as one. We have to fight them everywhere in the world,”
said Bill Doscher, 46, a forklift checker from the refinery.
“If we fold, and this company can get what they want from us, it will
snowball, and every other union will get the same thing. If Tate and Lyle
get their way, the middle class will go the way of the dinosaur.” Z
Clayton Sinyai is a labor activist and PhD candidate focusing on the
relation between the labor movement and Amercian democracy.