Month-old Domino Sugar strike never should have happened

January 08, 2003|By JAY HANCOCK

THIS STRIKE didn't have to happen.

A little communication from Domino Sugar management, a little patience from the union, a little good faith from one party or the other and the holidays would have been plenty sweeter for everybody.

The two sides are close enough to kiss. The union seems ready to agree to what the company wants -- barring one thing. That one thing is an easy, painless concession for managers, if they're dealing as fairly as they claim.

Both parties waited for a phone call that neither was willing to make. For a month. It took a federal mediator to get the sides back at the table yesterday, at the downtown Hyatt.

Come on, folks. At last count the city of Baltimore had 25,300 manufacturing jobs and falling. The 330 striking Domino workers hold one of the best blue-collar gigs in Maryland. Let's get a contract.

The company is coping. December is slow anyway for sugar refiners. The Baltimore plant is running half-bore with salaried staff, and other Domino mills are working extra to compensate.

But there's work to be done in Baltimore.

Plantations owned by the Cuban-expatriate Fanjul family, which took control of Domino in 2001, have been harvesting cane. The Agriculture Department predicts record world sugar production this year. The Locust Point mill is really "a plant and a half," one worker says, because it partly processes raw product for a Domino facility in New York.

Baltimore workers are coping, too, although if cigarette smoke and caffeine intake are proportional to stress and boredom, there's some collateral damage in the union hall.

"By coming down here it does two things," says Fred Tate, 46, who's normally a mechanic but today has been holding forth as an amateur football analyst at the United Food & Commercial Workers office. "It shows management your sign of unity; it shows management we're all together. And it's also a form of therapy. We can come down here and bounce off the walls."

Domino workers are not used to not working. Sixty-hour weeks are not unusual, and the overtime helps many earn more than $50,000 a year. Aside from a one-day walkout in the 1980s, they have not struck before.

The company proposes raising wages 2 percent for each of the next three years; boosting pension benefits and combining Baltimore's pension plan with those of other factories; cutting Veterans Day and New Year's Eve as paid holidays; and requiring a first-ever worker contribution of up to $100 per month for health insurance.

Striking workers have already missed thousands of dollars in paychecks -- enough to cover all the company's proposed cuts and then some.

Why? It's not so much about the health insurance. Domino workers seem to understand that employees help pay for medical coverage these days. It's not so much about the raises or the holidays or maybe even the substance of the pension switch. So far it's about what Domino will reveal about its proposed pooling of Baltimore's pension reserves with other plans.

This is critical information, as even Domino seems to agree. Pension plans go bust, as is evidenced by Bethlehem Steel; get looted, as shown by the imprisonment of former Detroit Tigers pitching ace Denny McLain; and are mismanaged, as demonstrated by the state of Maryland.

So, of course, the union wants to do homework, and it's difficult to understand why Domino didn't produce the information a month ago. The union says the company refused. The company says it was never asked.

What's clear is that Domino broached the pension issue at the last minute, a day or two before the contract ran out Saturday, Dec. 7. That Sunday the pickets went up.

If the two sides were trying to force the other's retreat, they forgot that effective brinksmanship involves a long, slow walk toward the precipice, not dire threats followed by instant execution.

Domino workers may have been unnerved by retirement-plan meltdowns at Enron and WorldCom. Management may have expected the union to work without a contract while making new pleas for disclosure.

"They didn't know how to read us," says Donald Brainard, vice president of human resources for American Sugar Refining Co., Domino's owner. "Maybe we didn't know how to read them."

American Sugar wants to reduce its administrative pension costs, which is reasonable on its face. The pension money belongs to the Domino workers, and they want to keep tabs on it. Also reasonable.

Mr. Brainard, will you give the union detailed financial information on your proposed pension combination?

"Absolutely," he says.

So get to it. If management harbors good intentions toward the pension plan, they shouldn't be hard to demonstrate.

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