Walking the picket line at a bitter time of year

Domino: It's a season of scrimping for sugar workers who are on strike - an increasingly rare step.

January 08, 2003|By Stacey Hirsh and Lorraine Mirabella | Stacey Hirsh and Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

For John Godleski, winter has meant no more cable television or weekly family outings to McDonald's or Pizza Hut.

Christmas meant no gift for his wife and a price limit on toys for his children.

And going to the Domino Sugar plant - where he has worked for more than a dozen years - meant that instead of loading sugar onto trucks, Godleski would brave the bitter cold as he and his co-workers march on strike outside the plant's front gate.

"What keeps me going is my kids. I've got four kids to take care of," said Godleski.

Godleski, 32, walked off the job with 330 co-workers Dec. 8 and found himself on the picket line and without a paycheck at one of the worst possible times: temperatures dropping, Christmas looming and the economy slumping. Talks resumed yesterday between Domino managers and workers.

The strikers are part of a shrinking pool of employees nationwide represented by unions - 13.5 percent in 2001, compared with 20 percent in 1983. And, experts say, those workers are resorting to strikes less often.

"Most of the union people are reluctant to go out on strike. It's a different ballgame today," said Charles A. J. Halpin Jr., a professor emeritus at LaSalle University in Philadelphia. "The social environment today is not favorable toward unions."

"Years ago ... somebody in the family was working at the steel mill or on the docks," he said. "But today, a lot of people are not familiar with unions. And the ones that end up on strike are taking a risk that they could be replaced."

In 2001 and 2000, about 16.3 million wage and salary workers belonged to unions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 37 percent of government workers belonged to unions, compared with 9 percent of private sector workers.

Workers have been striking their companies less and less frequently since the early 1980s. In the 1970s, some experts say, high inflation drove union demands, resulting in more strikes.

The number of strikes of 1,000 workers or more averaged 288 per year in the 1970s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That average fell to 83 strikes per year in the 1980s and 35 per year in the 1990s. The bureau reported 29 strikes in 2001, the latest year for which statistics are available.

Some experts blame the 1981 strike of air traffic controllers, who were fired by President Ronald Reagan for striking illegally, for an even greater decline in the strike as a weapon of organized labor. Also, courts have ruled to allow companies to permanently replace strikers - a strategy employers are using more frequently than they did a generation ago.

"We haven't seen in the last 10 years any long significant strikes involving thousands of employees" with the exception of the Teamsters strike of United Parcel Service in 1997, said Scott Witlin, a partner specializing in labor and employment law at Proskauer Rose LLP in Los Angeles. "The economic climate is better, so in some ways it makes it easier to avoid a strike. And some of that is reflective of the decline of organized labor."

With a federal mediator urging them to bring the strike to an end, Domino Sugar managers and workers met at a downtown hotel yesterday. At issue is a proposed contract that would change management of workers' pension fund, have them give up two paid holidays and require them to contribute to their health coverage.

Meanwhile, in the Locust Point union hall for Local 392 of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union yesterday, a chalkboard in the back read: "One day longer, one day stronger." Members said they come to the hall about twice a week, taking shifts walking circles outside the plant's entrance and on a nearby corner.

There are short breaks for the strikers to come into the hall and warm up with some coffee and a doughnut or a cup of soup. There's time for a smoke or to shoot the breeze with a co-worker. But mostly, the members of Local 392 are outside walking 24 hours a day, in rain and snow and biting wind.

Godleski, a bulk-loader for Domino who alternates working days and nights on the swing shift, said some strikers have down days, "but overall they realize that their future is being affected and we need to fight for our future and we'll do what it takes."

This is the fourth contract negotiation that Godleski has been through with Local 392 and Domino Sugar. Last time, Godleski panicked because he didn't have any money set aside. This time, he has been saving.

"If I didn't have savings to fall back on, I would probably be a little bit more worried and less upbeat about it," Godleski said.

Godleski said he has enough money to carry him until his income tax refund comes, and then that money can take him through summer.

Before the strike began, he got a $1,000 paycheck for overtime he had worked. That money was to go toward Christmas gifts, but instead it went to pay the mortgage on his three-bedroom brick house on a tree-lined street in Anne Arundel County.

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