THE DOMINO SUGAR FACTORY, with its iconic neon sign, looms over the Williamsburg waterfront. For the past century, the 11-story brick building bustled with employees, turning raw sugar into white granules.
But one year ago, in January 2004, the factory’s workers, many who had spent nearly their entire adult lives at Domino, punched in for their last shift. After work that day, some piled into a nearby bar, put back beers, and cursed the Fanjul brothers, a pair of Florida sugar magnates whose company had bought the factory three years earlier, only to shut it down, citing a falling demand for sugar. This past summer, the 11-acre property was sold to residential developers.
More than 200 workers, many who only a few years earlier had endured an ugly 20-month strike together, were given pink slips, a severance package, and a class on resume writing.
With some of its buildings dating back to the 1880s, when New York was a leading center for sugar refining, the Domino plant has become a symbol of the borough’s rapidly disappearing industrial past. The beer, shoe polish, and pasta factories that once lined the Brooklyn waterfront are being transformed into luxury lofts with high ceilings and views of Manhattan. Only 35,000 manufacturing jobs remain in Brooklyn, down from 45,000 in 1990 and 222,000 in the 1950s.
A year after the factory’s closing, many former Domino workers are still struggling to find jobs. The Shutterbug caught up with some of them in late November.
Richard Rednour, 51
Shipping and Warehousing Foreman
Years at Domino: 28
I still get up at 4:30 a.m.; I guess it’s habit. I used to get dressed and do everything like I was going to work, but I don’t even bother anymore. Now, if I know I’m going to stay home all day, I keep on my sweatpants and slippers. First thing in the morning I get on the computer and check my job Web sites, about nine of them. I’ve applied for hundreds of jobs, and I’ve gone to a dozen interviews. But I always get turned down with no reason. I’m getting depressed because I’m thinking it’s because of my age. My doctor started giving me antidepressants, and I’m smoking two packs a day. I’m getting good at all those computer games, playing pool and canasta. I’ve learned how to play canasta. It’s pretty sad. But I refuse to watch the soap operas.
Lillian Pizzini, 56
Shipping and Warehousing
Years at Domino: 28
When I came in I said “I’m not going to push a broom.” I wanted to get the sugar-boiler job. I drove a forklift, a truck loader, I did palette repair. I worked in the syrup shed. Working in re-melt was dangerous. I was lifting 50-pound, 100-pound bags of charred bone. I used to love my job. Now, I get so depressed I lock myself in the room for weeks. There’s nothing for people our age. I turned 55 three weeks before our last day, so I can collect my pension. I was one of the lucky ones. I was reckless. I made good money, and I used to spend my money. I put my son through college. Now I can’t write a check without thinking about it. I used to look forward to work. I figured I would stay three more years. They didn’t give me a choice.
Mike Herron, 48
Now: Organizer Local 74 SEIU
Years at Domino: 27
I was out of work for five months, and one of the business agents, they let him go, and the president of the local knew I was looking for work and offered me the job. I used to do physical work; now I’m driving around visiting cemeteries. I’m doing grievance management and contract enforcement for local 74. I’m working 10 to 12 hours a day with cemetery workers. The people you work with, you develop an attachment for, you miss your friends. I started out putting sugar in 50-pound bags. It was a high-paying job. We all thought we’d retire from there. At my new job, it’s much better quality. I’m not working in the heat, the work is not as physical—you don’t feel beat up at the end of a day. I like what I’m doing now a lot more. But you know, I actually feel guilty.
Mary Lou Fenice, 57
Now: Unemployed, Odd Jobs
Years at Domino: 23
Unemployment only lasted 26 weeks. They didn’t give us an extension because the current economy is so good. I guess it’s good if you want to work for $5 per hour. Now I got a CDL [commercial driver’s license]. I’d like to drive a school bus. I filled out an application, but I haven’t heard anything yet. After so many years, I just can’t be idle. But you know what, by losing a job it’s not the end of the world. If I had to, I would go out and get a job for $6 an hour. I did it when we went on strike. I went to the deli at Key Food. I was slicing bologna. For some people this was their first and only job, and to let this destroy you, shame on you. I try not to think about Domino. It’s over and that’s it.
Deborah Kolben is a reporter at the Daily News and a former staff writer at The Brooklyn Papers.