Sweet ‘N Low-down: BK Plant Puts Automation Over Employees

January 20, 2016
By Joe Maniscalco

Automation has come for the workers at this Brooklyn plant.

Automation has come for the workers at this Brooklyn plant.

New York, NY  – The Brooklyn company that has been churning out sweeteners for roughly the last 75 years, is packing up its manufacturing business and headed to the Midwest where it can replace its employees with machines — and there doesn’t appear to be enough candy-coated enticements in the City of New York to keep them here.

About 320 employees who have spent years, sometimes decades, working at the Cumberland Street plant next to the Brooklyn Navy Yard producing "Sweet 'N Low" and "Sugar In The Raw," are starting out 2016 with an axe hanging over their heads. Plant owners could not be reached for comment, but the Cumberland firings will reportedly start happening in May. 

UFCW Local 2013 had been bargaining with the company since last September when the existing contract expired. But according to union leader Louis Mark Carotenuto, Cumberland never once raised the specter of folding up or suggested that the company might be interested in a fully automated plant out of state. 

“It was really a blindside announcement," Carotenuto told LaborPress. "They claim that the deal was so good, they couldn’t pass it by."

Despite efforts to change their minds, the de Blasio administration sounds resigned to the Cumberland plant upheaval.

“The Navy Yard as a whole is going to continue to grow and thrive—with overall jobs on pace to double in the next several years,” spokesperson Wiley Norvell said in an email. “We will be focusing the efforts of our employment center to help find new opportunities for the Cumberland workers affected by the move. This includes prioritizing their access to available jobs, exploring special training programs and deepening our outreach to the Yard’s tenants and other nearby businesses to expand the list of available opportunities.”

Workers like 52-year-old machine operator Delbert Ranger are going to need all the help they can get. The Bed-Stuy dad said that Cumberland’s decision to put 320 people out of work came as a complete shock. 

“They just dropped the bomb on us,” Ranger told LaborPress. “It wasn’t anything that anybody was expecting.”

Ranger, who also supports his elderly mother, has been working at the Cumberland plant for the past six years. He isn’t sure what he’ll do if and when he loses his job. 

“Finding another job is going to be a little rough,” he said. “But not only for me, I have a lot of co-workers who have a language barrier. There are a lot of Hispanics that work here. Hopefully, it doesn't happen, and the company stays. But if it doesn’t, I guess it’ll be a job headhunting situation.”

Carotenuto argues that Cumberland should have been using the generous subsidies — discounted rents, facility investments and workforce training and recruitment — that they’ve received from the city over the years to find ways of increasing production without wiping out the livelhood of workers. 

The de Blasio administration says it just recently completed investments in a building that Cumberland leased a few years ago in anticipation of expansion.

“They should have been investing over the years they were getting subsidies,” Carotenuto said. “Right now, they’re saying full automation will give us everything we need and save us a load of money because we won’t have those labor costs.”

If, indeed, Cumberland can’t be induced to retain its manufacturing workforce in Brooklyn, the union will move into what’s known as “effects bargaining” in an attempt to secure some kind of package for fired workers. 

“Automation, huh? It’s machine versus man,” Ranger said. “And the machine will always win. But right now, companies are putting production over employees. I guess that’s where this is going.”

January 19, 2016

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