Horrific History Lesson: Working Conditions at The Domino Sugar Refinery
Although the former Domino Sugar refinery on Kent Avenue does not lie in Greenpoint, the building and the firm that ran it, Havemeyer and Elder, cast a long shadow over local history. Having spent the summer researching the plant for my upcoming book The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King, it is hard to express how much suffering is associated with the refinery.
The plant, which was opened in 1858, employed thousands of Greenpointers over its almost a century-and-a-half of existence. Much of the reason that we have a Polish population today is because the refinery had a policy of hiring Slavic men, principally Polish, who could not recount to outsiders the misery that working in the plant entailed. They worked in horrendous conditions that we can scarcely imagine today.
At its height, a thousand five hundred workers toiled in the sauna-like conditions of the refinery. For years they worked twelve-hour days in temperatures that often reached well above a hundred degrees and at almost a hundred percent humidity. In the days before proper ventilation, early in the morning on the hottest summer days, the workers knew that some of them would die from the searing heat and oppressive humidity. On one particularly hot day, there were eight heat-related deaths. On another occasion, a third of the entire refinery workforce of some 400 workers fainted with the heat. On another scorching day, more than 600 fell prostrate from the heat. Because passing out on hot days was so common the refinery set up an ambulance system to bring prostrate workers to the local hospital, but sometimes treatment came too late. Strong men who went into the plant were quickly wrecked by the sauna-like temperatures. Outsiders could recognize sugar workers because of their gauntness and pallid skin tone. Sugar workers quickly appeared physically drained and prematurely aged.
To help the workers to replenish the huge amounts of salt the sugar workers sweated out on their ten or twelve hour shifts, the firm served beer at cost, charging the workers a penny for a pound of beer. Management arranged to have beer brought into the refinery several times a day from a local brewery. It is little wonder that the saloons surrounding the plant did a huge business, or that heat-exhausted workers drank excessively. Often the men spent large amounts of their meager wages overindulging in beer, often bringing hardship on their dependent families who depended on them.
The plant was refining sugar in a time before the government intervened to ensure worker safety. Work in the plant was highly dangerous for the three thousand or so workers who toiled there. Workers could be killed or injured in a variety of ways and there was no system of workman’s compensation. Untested machinery often led to explosions that caused horrific injuries or even fatalities. Workers could be scalded by steam, or a falling elevator could crush them. Workers could impale themselves by falling on a hook or they could get pinned under a falling sugar bag. They could fall off slippery catwalks and die like George Havemeyer, the son of the plant’s founder. Sugar dust also hurt the workers’ health. Breathing the dust over seventy hours a week caused lung ailments and many of the workers developed chronic coughs and had trouble breathing. The dust also produced skin rashes that sometime covered the workers’ almost totally exposed bodies. Ed Michalewski from Oak Street, who worked in the plant, tells the gruesome tale of a worker who fell into the vat and his body was crushed, processed and cubed.
In 1886, the workers of Havemeyer and Elder and the other Williamsburg sugar plants struck for better pay and union recognition. Three thousand men went on strike including refinery workers, longshoremen and coopers. The strike hit plants from the Havemeyer and Elder refinery in Williamsburg to the Havemyer refinery run by a cousin at the Northern tip of Greenpoint. The goal of the strike was a reduction from a twelve to ten hour day and a raise of the daily wage to $1.75, but all of the sugar refinery owners refused to meet the demands of the strikers and were adamantly opposed to any union recognition. The strike was at times violent, with pitched battles between the strikers and local police. In the end the owners of the refinery had the ability to wait out the poor workers who were forced to return with no benefits from the strike. Another strike in 1910 was equally fruitless and violent. Not until the World War One did the workers in the refinery gain the protection of a union.
Unionization did not mean that the workers were happy. The refinery witnessed of one of New York City’s longest labor strikes in history. The strike started in June 1999, with over 250 workers, some of whom were Greenpointers, protesting wages and working conditions for twenty months. They returned to work in 2001 with little to show for the strike. The plant closed in 2004, laying off the two hundred-twenty-five men who still worked there. An era of local history came to an end. In a subsequent post I will talk about the future for the landmark building.
If the tales of Domino Sugar’s past fascinate you, our writer Geoff Cobb will be giving a reading from his book on the subject, on Wednesday November 15th at 4pm at the Williamsburgh Library (240 Division Ave).