Domino workers win on pensions

Plant can keep own plan

union expected to OK contract, return to work

January 11, 2003|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Striking Domino Sugar workers won a key demand - the independence of their pension plan - as part of a tentative contract that many believe will be approved in a vote today.

Company and union officials said yesterday that under the proposed agreement - reached three days after a federal mediator brought together the two sides in the monthlong dispute - the plan would not be folded into those of other plants as the company had initially wanted.

"We're not merging the plant's pension with another plant's pension; they're going to stay separate," said Donald Brainard, vice president of human resources of Domino owner American Sugar Refining Co., who declined to disclose other contract provisions. The company also owns plants in New York, Florida and Louisiana.

He called the settlement a "win-win situation."

Jill Cashen, spokeswoman for the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, also applauded the tentative contract.

"We're pleased with the proposal that our members will be voting on tomorrow," she said. "We think it provides for a secure retirement plan. We're recommending that the membership approve it."

Alex Hamilton, president of Local 392 of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, says terms of the three-year pact will be presented to Domino's 330 workers at a meeting preceding today's vote.

If the contract is ratified, workers will return to work Monday, a union official said.

A positive vote would end a dispute that caught the company and the workers, accustomed to decades of a stable relationship with management, by surprise. Domino workers went on strike Dec. 8 after rejecting what the company called its last and best offer by a 263 to 3 vote.

The walkout was the first sign of strife between the union and the plant's new owners, Alfonso and J. "Pepe" Fanjul. The Cuban expatriate brothers are the majority owners of American Sugar, which bought the Domino plant in November 2001 for more than $165 million.

Major hurdle

In addition to the pension plan, workers were unhappy about new health care costs and the loss of two paid holidays. But the pension plan appeared to be the biggest issue, with the union complaining that the company wouldn't provide enough details about the new plan.

As workers began picketing, the company began scaled-down operations, using about 150 nonunion workers and shifting some production to its other plants. The two sides did not resume talks until Tuesday, when a federal mediator intervened.

Workers optimistic

Yesterday, the mood at the union's hall - a Formstone rowhouse on Woodall Street around the corner from the Locust Point plant, was jubilant.

After enduring a holiday season on strike pay, workers were relieved by the prospect of again collecting regular paychecks. Many yesterday hailed the pension settlement as at least one victory for the union.

"Everybody's feeling real good today, and everybody's got a positive attitude today," said 15-year veteran Robert Sappington, who went to the hall yesterday to pick up his $60 union strike check. He still faced one more shift on the picket line - from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Sappington, 47, joined fellow workers who autographed a placard like the ones they wore around their necks as they picketed over the past month. One wanted it as a memento.

"It seems most everybody is ready to go back to work, but I will wait to see the proposal," Sappington said. "It's a positive sign when our executive board accepted it."

"I'm pretty sure it will end with a `yes' vote," said Michael Custis, a production line machine operator and 12-year employee. "You can look at people's faces and can tell."

Outside the plant's main gate yesterday, about a dozen workers continued to picket as two steel drums filled with wood crackled with fire.

Everett L. Hersey, a plant worker for 33 years, says he is pretty sure union members will go back to work after tomorrow's vote.

"We really won't be able to know the true outcome of it until we all vote on it because it could turn around and go the other way," said Hersey, 51, a recycling operator. "But from what I've heard, it's a pretty nice package compared to what they first offered us."

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