Strike at Domino ends with union vote

Three-year pact ratified after 35-day walkout by 300 sugar plant workers

January 12, 2003|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Domino Sugar workers yesterday voted to accept a new labor contract that many workers hailed as a victory for the union, ending the 35-day strike at the Locust Point plant.

Nearly 300 union members packed a Knights of Columbus hall near the sugar plant to vote yesterday morning on the three-year pact. After little debate and a tally of the ballots, Alex Hamilton, president of Local 392 of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, grabbed a microphone and announced the results:

Votes to reject: 22. Votes to accept: 269.

Workers then erupted from their seats, raised their hands and pumped their fists in celebration. One union official led workers in a chant that had become their mantra over the past month: "One day longer, one day stronger!"

"I'm really excited," said Milton Herget, a 30-year plant employee. "I'm glad that everything worked out for us. I'd rather be working. I'm a worker. I've missed 15 days the last 30 years."

Most workers interviewed yesterday said they were happy with the new contract negotiated with American Sugar Refining Co., which bought the Domino plant in November 2001 for more than $165 million.

They said the contract was far better than the one the company offered early last month that led them to strike on Dec. 8, after decades of relative labor calm.

Many workers proclaimed their relief at the prospect of receiving a paycheck once more at the plant - one of the city's most recognizable industrial landmarks that's crowned with a conspicuous 120-foot red neon sign facing the Inner Harbor. Some workers return today, while most start tomorrow.

"We're just happy to get back to work and get a paycheck again," said John Green, 52, an employee for three years. "We didn't get everything, but we got the majority of things we wanted."

"I was confident that it would pass," the union's Hamilton said yesterday after the meeting.

Donald Brainard, American Sugar's vice president of human resources, said he was pleased with the contract's acceptance.

"We want to put this behind us and continue working with the union to make that facility one of our most efficient and flexible operations," Brainard said in a telephone interview. "It's a great operation out there, and it's a good group of people. These things have to be put behind us."

The union succeeded in blocking a merger of the pension plan with those at other Domino plants. Workers also will get 2 percent wage increases in each year of the contract, and keep two paid holidays - New Year's Eve and Veterans Day - that the company wanted eliminated.

Hamilton said both sides reached a middle ground on the issue of sharing health care expenses. Under the company's earlier proposal, workers for the first time would have contributed to part of their health costs, paying $50 a month the first year, $75 a month the second year, and $100 a month in the third year of the contract. Under the ratified contract, workers will pay a flat $40 a month over the next three years.

But the union gave ground on work-rule flexibility and benefits, such as fewer paid days off and the elimination of all early retirement options for employees hired after Dec. 31, 2002.

"The company was looking for the flexibility to manage the work force in a more efficient manner," Brainard said. He said certain job categories - some considered outdated at the plant - would be combined for greater efficiency. He said the new contract has a greater impact on workers hired in the future than on current employees.

"We certainly did compromise on that," the union's Hamilton said. "We're not happy with the language that's there. We see that as a battle for the future."

But no employees will lose their jobs as a result of the new contract, Hamilton said.

Union officials said the strikers maintained their solidarity, with none of the local's 330 members crossing the picket line.

"It's not a total victory," said instrument mechanic Phil Nicholson, 51. "It's a compromise that we can live with."

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