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Sugar strike short, sour for workers

More than 850 workers at Florida Crystals Inc.'s massive sugar plant here saw their hopes for better pay and benefits literally go up in smoke during a four-day strike over the holidays.

As fellow union members crossed the picket lines and replacement workers were bused in, the Okeelanta mill's three smokestacks began belching steam, a signal that sugar cane processing was moving ahead without the striking workers. Fearful they would permanently lose their jobs, on New Year's Day the strikers accepted a contract with fewer benefits than the one that sparked the action.

The Okeelanta sugar workers returned to work a week ago, having lost both face and faith in their employer. Union president Javier Almazan Sr., a father of six who has worked at the plant for 17 years, called the ill-fated strike a nightmare.

"We were up against some giants and the giants won," he said. "The little man was squashed."

The union defeat has repercussions beyond the cane fields south of Lake Okeechobee. It demonstrates the weakness of organized labor in areas where job options are few and unemployment high.

Heavy-handed police behavior during the strike _ ticketing passers-by for honking in support, for instance _ reinforced the powerful reputation of the Fanjuls, the wealthy Cuban family that owns Florida Crystals.

And the company's demand for labor concessions after a year of record harvests illustrates the siege mentality of the U.S. sugar industry. Despite decades of federal price supports, the nation's sugar producers _ Florida Crystals being among the biggest _ are watching consumption decline while pressure to open the market to more imports is rising. Meanwhile, in South Florida, residential development is becoming an increasingly attractive option for thousands of acres planted in cane.

All these factors played into the Fanjul family's hands as they stared down the strikers at Okeelanta. It took just a few days for the strikers to blink.

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The Okeelanta plant, 6 miles south of Lake Okeechobee, is the crown jewel in Florida Crystals' kingdom, employing 1,200 of the company's 3,000 workers. It's a sprawling complex cobbled together over the past 60 years to include every step of the sugarmaking process, from milling and refining to packaging and distribution. An on-site power plant even burns the squeezed-out cane waste to produce steam for the mill.

During the harvest, 50 trucks an hour dump cane stalks onto a conveyor belt. At the opposite end of the property, an assembly line cranks out giant 100-pound sacks as well as tiny restaurant packs of sugar.

On a good day, 25,000 tons of cane are transformed into nearly 3,000 tons of sugar at Okeelanta, generating an aroma that sticks in the back of the throat like a mixture of burned molasses and mulch.

The Fanjul family acquired Okeelanta two decades ago, and had been producing sugar in Cuba for nearly 100 years before Castro came to power. The family fled to Florida, where, in 1960, they founded Florida Crystals. Gradually they have amassed 180,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee, a parcel about the size of Pinellas County.

In addition to the Okeelanta factory, the Fanjuls own two other mills in Palm Beach County and are majority owners in two sugar refineries, one in Louisiana, the other in Yonkers, N.Y. The Fanjuls also operate a sugar business in the Dominican Republic with approximately the same acreage as their Florida holdings.

The sugar business has been good to the Fanjuls. Florida Crystals and the state's two other sugar growers, U.S. Sugar Corp. and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative, produce about a quarter of all sugar consumed in the United States, making Florida the nation's largest domestic producer. During the 2003-2004 season, Florida Crystals produced a record 900,000 tons of sugar and posted revenues of $500-million.

That affords company chairman and chief executive Alfonso "Alfy" Fanjul Jr.; his brother Jose "Pepe" Fanjul Sr., president and chief operating officer; and heir apparent Jose "Pepe" Fanjul Jr., head of the family real estate division, a lavish lifestyle with mansions in Palm Beach and a private helicopter for the 50-mile jaunt west to the cane fields and mills.

The Fanjuls have shared the wealth with politicians. Family members and affiliated companies have donated at least $2.6-million to state and federal candidates and parties since 2000, helping to make the sugar industry a major force in American politics.

Such generosity generates phenomenal access: President Bill Clinton interrupted a lovers' spat with Monica Lewinsky in February 1996 to take a call from Alfy Fanjul.

Domestic sugar producers are dependent on a federal program of loans, production allotments and foreign quotas that keep U.S. sugar prices two to three times higher than the price worldwide. An analysis in 2000 by the General Accounting Office estimated that price supports cost domestic users about $1.9-billion a year.

Under the program, Florida Crystals was allowed to sell 800,000 tons of sugar last year, with the remainder being stored at company expense. With a price difference of about 12 cents a pound between domestic and world sugar recently, that amounts to a $192-million benefit for the Fanjuls.

Gaston Cantens, the former Florida House majority whip who joined Florida Crystals as lobbyist in May, defends the price supports. "Every agricultural interest in the U.S. has some sort of program," he said, adding that American sugar producers are up against foreign growers that are heavily subsidized or have substantially lower costs of production.

Crucial to the U.S. sugar program are tight restrictions on imports. Those quotas are being threatened by terms of the Central American Trade Agreement, which is expected to be considered by the Senate in the spring. Though U.S. trade officials insist that the increased sugar imports allowed under the agreement would be minuscule _ equal to about one day's production of the U.S. sugar industry _ American sugar producers are predicting dire consequences if it passes.

U.S. sugar growers are also battling a decline in U.S. consumption of sugar, which has dropped from about 44 pounds a person in 2000 to 42 pounds a person last year. Bashed by Atkins dieters and concerns about obesity, the industry plans a $5-million ad campaign this year touting sugar as "the natural sweetener."

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The workers at the Okeelanta plant have long heard their bosses talk about threats to the sugar industry. Frederick Small, who has driven cane trucks at the plant for 31 years, said he and his co-workers happily lobbied on Florida Crystals' behalf more than once, even traveling to the trade talks in Miami in November 2003 to picket against sugar imports.

"We did it for Okeelanta," said Small, 52. "We live, sleep, drink Okeelanta."

Small and his co-workers speak proudly of the plant where second-generation employees are common and nearly 98 percent of seasonal laborers return year after year.

As members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 2152, an affiliation dating back nearly 50 years, Okeelanta workers were seen as the elite among the thousands of sugar workers in Palm Beach and Hendry counties. Pay for union members ranged from $9 to $19 an hour, setting the lead for wages in the area.

Farmworkers, who do not receive overtime pay under federal law, got time and a half after 50 hours of work under Okeelanta's union contract. And the company subsidized health benefits so that workers paid just $6 a month for an individual's HMO coverage and $48 a month for family.

Joe Kyles, who worked at Okeelanta for 19 years before being hired as union business representative 14 years ago, said the relationship between workers and Florida Crystals was smooth until last fall.

That's when the company presented the union with a new three-year contract calling for unprecedented concessions. Monthly health insurance premiums would be raised by 25 percent to $7.50 for individuals and $60 for families, copays would increase and seasonal workers would be switched to less comprehensive coverage. The union's 250 farmworkers, who make $10.75 an hour and routinely work 80 hours a week during the harvest, would no longer receive any overtime pay.

And 159 of the 180 truck drivers like Small would be out of a job when the company shuts down its hauling service and switches to independent carriers at the end of this year's sugar cane harvest in March.

After numerous unsuccessful talks, Florida Crystals added a sweetener just before Christmas: a severance package for dismissed drivers and an early retirement plan for workers over age 62.

It was not enough. On Dec. 22, union members agreed to strike by a vote of 712-41. Three days after Christmas, hundreds of workers showed up at the picket line outside the plant on U.S. 27. Officials from the Department of Transportation pushed the strikers 40 feet off the road, citing safety concerns. Palm Beach County sheriff's deputies ticketed numerous passers-by who honked at the gathering.

Warner Ortiz, a driver for Glades Sugar Cooperative, said he got a $71 ticket after honking his horn at someone stepping onto the roadway. Although he didn't necessarily support the strikers, he is angry law enforcement tried to use the law to silence supporters.

"When the sheriff was running for office, he had signs saying, "Honk to show support,' " said Ortiz, who intends to appeal the ticket. "They only enforce that law when they feel like it."

Okeelanta workers had not been out on strike long before the rumors started. Union members who had crossed the line called those on the outside, urging them to give in. Kyles said strikers kept hearing rumors that if they didn't sign a new contract by Dec. 31, they'd be out of work for good, with replacements coming from another Fanjul mill.

On New Year's Eve, union and company officials met at the posh country club in Wellington. The company reiterated its demands and refused to reinstate its offers of severance and early retirement packages. The union reps took the contract back to its members, who accepted it New Year's Day by a vote of 584-42.

A week after the strike began, everyone was back to work at Okeelanta. Ricardo Lima, the plant's general manager, tried to soothe hard feelings, saying simply there were strong issues at the table and he was glad it had been resolved. Cantens, Florida Crystals' spokesman, said: "There are never winners when you have a strike. We just try to make sure we can be competitive so we don't risk the jobs of everyone at the mill."

At the union hall up the road in South Bay, more than a hundred workers gathered after work on Wednesday to figure out what went wrong. Though a few complained they had been sold out by union officials, they remained fiercely loyal to their local president, Almazan. And they cheered when he announced fines and sanctions against fellow members who had crossed the picket line.

Small, the Okeelanta driver who may lose his job as a result of the contract changes, admits the strike was a big blow to the union. Even if he buys a truck and tries to work for the mill as an independent driver, he doubts he'll be able to match the $34,000 he earned last year as a company driver.

Still, Small is proud that his union made a stand.

"The union is strong and our president is outspoken, not bowing down to the company," he said. "In order to win, there's always got to be a struggle. Take away our union and these big companies would handle us like nothing."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at hundleysptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.

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