NEW YORK — Over decades on the job, the workers inside the Domino Sugar plant grew into a family. Nearly 300 strong, they often celebrated as one: christenings, birthdays, weddings.
"This was a neighborhood plant," remembers Charlie Milan, a 37-year Domino veteran, standing outside the Brooklyn factory on a cold winter afternoon. "Everybody knew everybody."
After 21 months on the picket line, fighting a British corporation they accuse of union-busting, the workers and their families now share grim anniversaries.
The day their contract expired: Oct. 2, 1998.
The day their picket line went up: June 15, 1999.
And the night when John Alschen left the line, went home and killed himself: Dec. 15, 1999.
Most painful of all, they no longer share them together. About one-third of the workers have spurned the union and crossed the picket line since Alschen's death.
"We just did a one-year service for John," says Joe Crimi, vice president of the International Longshoremen's Assn. Local 1814. "His son still stops by the picket line."
Crimi, in faded jeans and black leather coat, sits inside a temporary union hall behind Domino's brick refinery off the East River. The long white trailer where Crimi holds court also serves as an office/pantry/rec room for the pickets.
"ON STRIKE," proclaim the cardboard signs taped to its side. "Domino Sugar, Tate & Lyle."
In June 1999, when the strike began, there were 284 workers on the line--workers who performed every task in the refinery, from answering phones to repairing equipment.
Nine months later, the first striker defected. Ninety-eight have now crossed the picket line, pitting friend against ex-friend.
The sticking point in the long strike is job security, the union says. Company managers contend the problem is more complex: They say they want to bring the 145-year-old plant into the 21st century, and the union refuses to come along.
The last new contract offer came in November, and the union unanimously rejected it.
Since Local 1814 went on strike, the new millennium has arrived, the Yankees have won two World Series and Bill Clinton has moved from the White House to Westchester County.
"That's an awful long time to be out," says Rich Greer of the AFL-CIO.
On the picket line, in the shadow of the factory, two dozen people march and chant, recorded on three video cameras hefted by company security personnel.
"How long will we last?" shouts one picket.
"One day longer!" her cohorts respond.
One day longer than their bosses at Tate & Lyle.
There was reason to cheer when Tate & Lyle purchased Domino in 1988. A pair of leveraged buyouts had preceded its arrival--the Domino name was briefly owned by Merrill Lynch--but the new bosses were in the sugar business.
"Little did we know," Crimi says now, "that it was the worst thing that could have happened to us."
The first hints of trouble, according to the union, came in 1993, at a factory halfway across the country.
The A.E. Staley Manufacturing Co. in Decatur, Ill., was a Tate & Lyle holding. In the midst of negotiations with the union there, the company locked out its 750 workers.
Thirty months later, when the lockout ended, fewer than 200 of those workers returned.
When contract negotiations opened for the Domino workers in spring 1998, Crimi received the company's proposal. As he reviewed the document, something slowly dawned on him.
"It was the exact Staley package," Crimi recalls. "We just looked at it and couldn't believe it."
Margaret Blamberg, director of government relations for Tate & Lyle North America, says she can't comment on any similarities in the initial offer. But she maintains the economic reality of the sugar business forced the company to retool its operation.
"Our largest competitor, Imperial Sugar, declared bankruptcy this year," Blamberg says. "Business is difficult."
Either way, the three-year Domino contract expired in October 1998. The union worked without a deal for nine months before going on strike.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average strike in 1999 lasted 16 days. The Domino workers have been out nearly 600 days.
Nevertheless, Blamberg rejects charges that the company wants to destroy the union: "This is not a union-busting company."
Actions speak louder than words, Crimi replies. But he and other strikers save their harshest words for the workers who crossed the picket line. The animosity the strikers felt was almost violent: "I didn't know if they were going to stay alive, those people," Crimi says.
Adds Alfred Maddox Jr., a 60-year-old who marked his last two birthdays on the picket line: "I was upset when they went in, very disappointed."
But for the workers who crossed the picket line, the decision was often a matter of survival--paychecks needed for food, rent, clothes.
Those returning workers have helped production at the factory reach pre-strike levels in the last year, Blamberg says. She stresses that Tate & Lyle is in business for the long haul.