Badly Hammered Domino Strikers Rebuke Labor Movement

by Charles Walker

“What we really needed was the clout of the labor movement.” — Domino striker, Daily News, 3/1/01

When nearly 300 sugar refinery workers struck their Brooklyn waterfront plant twenty months ago, they knew that they were not going to win easily. But they had outlasted their bosses, the Domino Sugar Co. (owned by the British conglomerate Tate & Lyle), in a seven-month strike in 1992–93. So they had reason to hope. Maybe they could pull it off again.

Besides, the company had practically kicked them out the door when it proposed a deal that would allow the firm to “reopen the contract unilaterally and hire more subcontractors to take union jobs,” reported New York City’s Daily News. A striker told the paper: “They want us to sign a contract that says that we can’t strike, and they can reopen it anytime.”

And then to sweeten the proposed deal, the bosses insisted on eliminating 100 of the $15 an hour jobs, along with three paid holidays.

On February 27, after enduring two winters outside the refinery, the remaining strikers, members of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), voted 56 to 48 to ratify a three-year contract that provides them with a one-time 5 percent raise, in exchange for giving what the bosses claim is “the operating flexibility which the company sought to improve competitiveness in the volatile U.S. cane sugar market.”

“We got shafted. We got stabbed in the back,” declared a worker with 37 years seniority to the New York Times. Another striker said simply, “I don’t like the contract at all, but there’s nothing to hold out for anymore.” And of course, there may be far less to hold out for when the new contract expires.

Lack of Support from the Labor Movement

But the contractual losses aren’t the only losses the strikers have suffered. Once they believed that they were part of the greater labor movement; that they weren’t alone, especially whenever the bosses put on the brass knuckles. They felt like that when they first walked out on June 15, 1999. Then they felt strong enough to try to resist the company’s greed. “We’re ready to stay out,” the union’s strike leader said, “until we get a contract or they close.”

But between then and now, unemployment benefits ran out, a sixty-two year old skilled worker slit his wrists, a hundred or so strikers — a few at a time — went back, and unionized plants in Baltimore and New Orleans kept operating. In fact, the Baltimore plant sent barges of liquid sugar to the Brooklyn refinery, eliminating the need to process raw sugar, a more labor-intensive procedure.

But the toughest thing to deal with was the lack of real fighting support from the labor movement. Of course there were the usual routine resolutions of support and solidarity from union officials at all levels; but there was no mass picketing to halt the continuing production and distribution of the struck products. And there were donations, but not enough to offset the loss of their unemployment benefits. Last November, the local union’s vice president, Joe Crimi, told the Daily News, “We need a nationwide strike fund and a nationwide boycott.” “But national labor leaders, from AFL-CIO President John Sweeney on down, have been slow to come to the Brooklyn local’s aid with strike fund assistance,” Crimi told reporters.

Outrage That Sweeney Didn’t Get Involved

Later, Crimi said that the members “are extremely disappointed to the point of outrage that AFL-CIO president, John Sweeney, did not get involved at all in what was a two-year strike in the strongest labor town in America…It’s a disgrace. There’s something that should have been done here in order to put us on some kind of level playing field with this company, and it was never done.”

On the strike’s last day, Crimi told the New York Times, “It’s a complete loss.” The paper summed up the strikers’ experience and their dejection. “For the first nine months of the strike, the 284 unionized workers showed extraordinary solidarity, without anyone crossing the picket line…By last weekend, 104 former strikers had crossed the picket line…The strikers blamed their parent union for doing little for them — it did not even provide strike benefits. They blamed the labor movement for turning its back on them by not rallying to their cause. They blamed their co-workers for crossing the picket line. And they accused the president of their local of selling them out to put this embarrassing fight behind him.”

It’s been said that the American labor movement is no longer a crusade; it’s become an institution with a bad case of hardening of the arteries; many of its leaders seem afflicted with senility-like forgetfulness. A case in point is Denis Hughes, the head of the New York State AFL-CIO. When asked about the Domino fiasco, he told reporters that unions have to come up with better strategies. “It bothered me from the beginning that the union wasn’t strong enough to put this together. It shows that even in the best of situations management has an enormous amount of power. One of the things we have to do better in the trade union movement is to develop strategies at the beginning of a dispute, instead of midway through.”

Hughes has forgotten that a labor union “strategy” that isn’t based on union solidarity is not going to overcome the financial and political power of the bosses. Whether at the “beginning of a dispute” or not, workers cannot prevail over bosses determined to drive up profits at workers’ expense without widespread labor solidarity. Hughes says that twenty months ago he was “bothered” that the union might be overpowered. But that seemingly didn’t keep him up nights. It certainly didn’t spur him to use his well-paid union leadership position to travel the state and the country, if need be, to mobilize the support of organized labor for the Domino strikers.

Too Busy Hustling Votes for Democrats

On the other hand, we may be certain that the Domino strikers’ plight didn’t keep him from traveling New York State in service of the politicians of the Democratic Party. Whatever satisfaction Hughes might derive from the electoral victories of New York’s Democrats (Senator Hillary Clinton comes to mind), that satisfaction is cold comfort to nearly three hundred Brooklyn workers who once put their trust in organized labor.

Clearly, the Domino strikers are not poster union members for the AFL-CIO’s push to recruit a million new members a year. Potential new members looking for an answer to their bosses’ profit-driven greed aren’t going to be attracted to leaders and unions that don’t win.