Domino strikers and officials expected to finally talk today

Baltimore sugar workers walked out a month ago

January 07, 2003|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The monthlong strike at Baltimore's Domino Sugar refinery is showing its first hint of progress, with managers and workers expected to meet today for the first time since union employees walked out over a contract dispute early in December.

Domino Sugar officials and representatives of the plant's union workers are scheduled to meet at 11 a.m. at a downtown hotel, at the urging of a federal mediator who stepped in to broker a resolution. Neither side gave indications yesterday that the central issues have changed, but each said it was eager to resume negotiations and at least inch toward a possible end to the strike.

"I would be remiss if I told you that things weren't tight, that it hasn't been difficult at times - especially given the weather and the holiday season," said Alex Hamilton, president of Local 392 of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, whose 330 members have been on strike since Dec. 8.

"But that just shows you how serious everyone is, how committed they are to the principles that caused us to go out in the first place."

Workers are protesting a proposed employment contract that would have altered the management of their pension fund, an important asset to the largely veteran work force. The proposed contract also called for employees to give up two paid holidays and make new contributions to their health coverage, peaking at $100 per month. But the pension issue sparked most of the workers' ire. Union members rejected the proposed contract early last month by a vote of 263 to 3, then voted 252 to 16 to go on strike.

Since the strike began, the company's 150 nonunion workers have continued some operations inside the Key Highway plant as union workers man round-the-clock picket lines outside the main gate. The weeks before and after Christmas are generally slow for the sugar business, and officials with Domino Sugar's owner, American Sugar Refining Co., say they have used other plants to compensate for the reduced production in Baltimore.

Donald Brainard, vice president of human resources for American Sugar, said the contract that union members rejected is still on the table.

"Nothing has changed from our perspective," he said. "We thought our offer back in December was fair and reasonable, and we still do."

The strike is one of the few periods of labor strife at Domino Sugar, where workers say they have long prided their ability to endure bad economic times and changes in ownership. It also was the first public discord between the workers and American Sugar, which bought the plant in 2001 for more than $165 million.

A federal mediator has been involved in the dispute since before contract talks fell apart last month, and called the two sides back to today's bargaining session. Management and union negotiators, who have both been waiting for the other to make a move, agreed to the session.

Hamilton, a 32-year employee of the Domino Sugar plant, said the workers' enthusiasm has not been dampened by the cold month on the picket lines.

"Spirits are still high," he said. "No one is happy about the situation, but the resolve is still there."

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