BALTIMORE – The 330 workers at Domino Sugar’s refinery are usually busy this time of year making the holidays sweet. This year, they are walking the picketline to protest takeaways demanded by Domino’s new owners, Florida sugar barons Pepe and Alfonse Fanjul.

It is the first strike since 1949 at the refinery, which produces six million pounds each day of granulated cane sugar. The raw cane is shipped by barge from Florida for processing at the huge refinery in Baltimore’s inner harbor.

Alex Hamilton, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 392, told the World the problem arose when Domino’s new owners proposed merger of retirement and health care plans at Domino refineries in Baltimore, Chalmette, La., and Brooklyn, N.Y. – where members of the International Longshoremen’s Association were on strike in 1999-2000 – but refused to open the books at the other refineries.

‘They flatly refused to provide the information,’ he said. ‘This is the fourth change of ownership for this company and we have never had a problem like this before. There was no give and take.’

Domino management, he charged, handed out reports predicting a flood of cheap Mexican sugar under NAFTA if they didn’t bow to company takeaways.

The workers voted 263 to 3, Dec. 8, to reject the company’s ‘pig-in-a-poke’ contract and 252 to 16 to authorize the strike. ‘We have maintained 24-hour a day picketlines ever since,’ he said.

The Fanjuls, sugar barons in pre-revolutionary Cuba, now own 400,000 acres of cane fields in Florida and the Dominican Republic. With a fortune estimated at half a billion dollars, they live in mansions in Palm Beach, Fla. Their majority ownership of American Sugar Refining marks a new stage in the vertical integration of the sugar industry from growing the cane to refining and marketing. Pepe is a major contributor to the Republicans while Alfonse bankrolls the Democrats.

‘People wouldn’t be out walking the picketline in this cold if they didn’t feel strongly about the issues here,’ Hamilton told me in the union’s modest row-house office a block from the plant. ‘The Teamsters and the railroad workers are honoring our picketlines.’ Local churches and community groups are donating cash and food to help the striking families during the holidays.

Based on the handful of trucks crossing the picketline each day, ‘we estimate they are at about one-fifth of normal production,’ he said.

William Brizendine, with 33 years at Domino, held up a picket sign emblazoned with the word ‘greed’ as a tanker inched toward the gate. ‘The worst thing is what they want to do to our pensions,’ he told me. ‘All the Enron workers, all the Eastern Stainless workers lost everything. We’re not going to let that happen here if we can stop it.’

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