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State AFL-CIO backs sugar industry's fight

Big Sugar won an unlikely friend Thursday in its fight against environmentalists over the Everglades: Big Labor.

The Florida AFL-CIO said it opposed a proposed ballot initiative that would impose a penny-per-pound tax on sugar to help clean the water flowing through the "River of Grass."

Historically, labor unions have fought sugar farmers, who resisted attempts to organize the largely migrant population of cane cutters once used to harvest the sugar each year.

But Florida AFL-CIO president Marilyn Lenard said sugar and labor would work together to protect jobs.

The sugar industry employs about 16,000 workers _ including 3,000 unionized machinists, electricians and others. Lenard said another 24,000 jobs are dependent on the well-being of the industry, and would be lost if the tax were levied.

"We as an industry, we need the jobs," said Jay Scruggs, an electrician from Canal Point who has worked at U.S. Sugar Corp. for 15 years.

But backers of the sugar tax said a healthy Everglades supports about 365,000 jobs in tourism and fishing in South Florida and Florida Bay.

"Why aren't they worried about all the other jobs in Florida?" said Mary Barley, the millionaire environmentalist organizing the sugar-tax petition drive.

Barley said she was disappointed the state AFL-CIO backed the sugar industry when some local labor groups, including the Central Florida AFL-CIO and the Orlando Building and Construction Trades Council, supported the tax proposal.

"I think they're subverting the will of their own membership," Barley said.

Her group, the Save Our Everglades Committee, is awaiting certification of 700,000 sets of signatures it collected on petitions to place the sugar tax and two related questions on the November ballot. The sugar industry filed lawsuits in federal and state courts to keep the initiative off the ballot.