Brooklyn Sweet’N Low Workers Face Mass Layoffs To Make Way for Luxury Condos

Dan DiMaggio

Sweet'N Low workers rallied outside the Cumberland Packing Plant after learning it will be shut down this year.

This post first appeared at Labor Notes.

The work­ers who make Sweet’N Low start­ed the new year with some bit­ter news. Their fac­to­ry — in ever-gen­tri­fy­ing Brook­lyn, New York — will shut down in the next few months, like­ly to make way for lux­u­ry condos.

It was a com­plete blind­side,” said Louis Mark Carotenu­to, pres­i­dent of Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW) Local 2013. Since Sep­tem­ber the union had been in nego­ti­a­tions with fam­i­ly-owned Cum­ber­land Pack­ing for a new col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agreement.

At five build­ings in and near Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, work­ers pro­duce, pack­age, and ship Sweet’N Low, Ste­via, Sug­ar in the Raw, and oth­er In the Raw prod­ucts, includ­ing a new line of beverages.

Nev­er dur­ing the course of nego­ti­a­tions did they both­er to bring up com­pet­i­tive pres­sures,” said Carotenu­to. It’s not about com­pe­ti­tion, it’s about real estate value.

They told us, We sim­ply had an offer that we couldn’t refuse,’” said Mis­cha Gaus, the local’s polit­i­cal direc­tor (and a for­mer edi­tor of Labor Notes).

The com­pa­ny admits, accord­ing to the union, that the plant is still prof­itable. In fact, the con­tract there isn’t near­ly as rich as oth­er union­ized sug­ar-pro­duc­ing facilities.

I’m one of the work­ers who makes Sweet’N Low for your morn­ing cof­fee,” said com­pound mix­er Jahan Khan, a bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee mem­ber, at a ral­ly four days after work­ers got the word. I live up the street from the com­pa­ny. I want to stay there. But what future do we have, if our jobs disappear?”

RIS­ING RENTS

The major­i­ty of the 320 work­ers in the fac­to­ry are Lati­no immi­grants. Pack­ing depart­ment work­ers Glo­ria Felipe, Estela Pal­ma, and Maria Mer­az, who all came from Mex­i­co as teenagers, list­ed off the home coun­tries of some of their co-work­ers: the Domini­can Repub­lic, Mex­i­co, Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru, Trinidad and Toba­go, Haiti.”

Felipe came from Mex­i­co at 16 and has worked in this fac­to­ry for 44 years. Mer­az, who’s put in 25 years, said she had just returned from vaca­tion when she heard the news: I nev­er thought the com­pa­ny would one day shut its doors. It’s a shock.”

It’s been a good job,” said Pal­ma. They’ve always treat­ed us well and said we’re a fam­i­ly. We’re con­fused. Our fam­i­lies, and many sin­gle moth­ers, depend on this job.”

Mechan­ic Esvin Mendez, from Guatemala, has worked here for 19 years. Although salaries increase with senior­i­ty, he still only makes $15 an hour — not enough, he says, giv­en ris­ing rents and the cost of rais­ing a family.

But Mendez is on the upper end of the wage scale. Accord­ing to UFCW, three-quar­ters of Cum­ber­land work­ers are paid less than $15 an hour, and there’s an aver­age pay gap of $2.12 between men and women, who tend to have dif­fer­ent job titles. One-quar­ter make less than $10.

LAST FEW FACTORIES

The com­pa­ny plans to keep its exec­u­tive offices in Brook­lyn, but to move all blue-col­lar work out of the city.

The union sees Cumberland’s move as part of a dev­as­tat­ing trend that’s purg­ing the bor­ough of its Black and Brown res­i­dents. Most of the work­ers live in Brook­lyn and Queens, some of them in the thou­sands of units of pub­lic hous­ing around the cor­ner from the factory.

The union is fight­ing to keep these 320 jobs in Brook­lyn; this is one of the area’s last big fac­to­ries. One strat­e­gy is to oppose any rezon­ing of Cumberland’s prop­er­ties for real estate development.

A num­ber of local politi­cians pledged their sup­port at a Jan­u­ary 12 ral­ly. We are not going to allow a rezon­ing here,” said City Coun­cil­woman Lau­rie Cum­bo, so that lux­u­ry con­dos can be built and so that peo­ple who do not look like you and me, and who didn’t build Brook­lyn, can move in here. Your chil­dren and your grand­chil­dren deserve to live here.”

New York City Pub­lic Advo­cate Tish James also promised to work with local elect­ed offi­cials to oppose any rezon­ing. She attacked the com­pa­ny for accept­ing $1.7 mil­lion in tax­pay­er sub­si­dies from the city. From 2006 to 2012 your hand was open, and now you want to close the door.”

Despite the sub­si­dies, in our opin­ion, they’ve failed to rein­vest in the tech­nol­o­gy here and in the work­ers,” said Carotenuto.

WE WANT TO STAY’

Local 2013 met with Cum­ber­land man­age­ment again Jan­u­ary 13. But the com­pa­ny is so far insist­ing only on bar­gain­ing over the closure’s effects on work­ers, which could include the tim­ing of lay­offs or sev­er­ance pay.

The plant could close as lit­tle as 60 days after Jan­u­ary 14, when Work­er Adjust­ment Retrain­ing and Noti­fi­ca­tion (WARN) notices were sent out. While the com­pa­ny has pledged there will be no lay­offs until May, union offi­cials say they no longer trust Cumberland’s word.

Nativi­dad Sanchez, from the Domini­can Repub­lic, is rais­ing a three-year-old and a nine-year-old on her job at the fac­to­ry. We’re from Brook­lyn, and we want to stay in Brook­lyn,” she said.

How would you feel if you gave so much of your life to a com­pa­ny and they said they’re closing?”

Dan DiMag­gio is an assis­tant edi­tor at Labor Notes
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