Cornelius Fowler’s message was simple when he walked the halls of Congress this summer.
“If you kill the root, you kill the tree,” he said, “and the sugar industry is the root of the tree in my community.”
Fowler drives a truck hauling farm equipment for the Florida Crystals Okeelanta Sugar Mill in western Palm Beach County. His father and grandfather worked at the mill.
He was among the group of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) members who traveled to Washington recently to explain why America’s sugar policy is critical to rural communities.
“If there’s no sugar policy, we have no future, no job, no home,” Fowler explained.
The no-cost policy is part of the Farm Bill, which Congress passed last year. It exists due to subsidies and trade-distorting policies around the globe, and it helps U.S. farmers and sugar businesses survive amid price volatility.
The American industry employs 142,000 people in 22 states in mostly rural communities. Direct annual wages and benefits for the industry add up to nearly $1.2 billion – a figure that increases to $4.2 billion when economy-wide impacts are included.
Fowler is raising 5 children with his union job at Florida Crystals. It offered him job training, good pay, a pension and benefits. His son, the oldest, is considering medical school.
Union members met with about 30 lawmakers or their staff representatives during the visit. Most of the lawmakers were freshmen and new to sugar policy.
“A lot of people don’t get to visit Congress,” Fowler said. “Being able to sit down with them and tell them your story. Tell them exactly what your community, and your job, means to you.”
Joaquin Almazan, another IAM member, and worker at the Okeelanta Sugar Mill, was on the trip with Fowler. He’s a second-generation machinist, joining his father in the business. His son is now working at the mill.
“It has meant a good living for us,” he told the members he met with. “We have been able to put my daughter through college and buy a house. We have good health care and money for vacations. It’s everything to us.”
U.S. sugar policy, Almazan said, creates sustainable communities around Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. The money from sugar jobs is spent locally at other businesses and funds public infrastructure like schools and hospitals.
His sister works for a local business that might not exist without the good-paying union jobs at the mill.
“If I lose my job, she probably loses hers because most of us in town can’t afford to support local businesses without a sugar paycheck,” he noted.
Similar sentiments were shared by Carol Howard, a union worker with U.S. Sugar’s railroad that hauls sugar from Florida fields to factory. She joined Fowler and Almazan on Capitol Hill.
“I followed in my father’s footsteps when I started at the company more than a decade ago. Now my son now works here, and I have several family members working at U.S. Sugar,” she said. “Sugar has sustained my whole family, and it’s important that I help support the policy that sustains the industry.”
A strong bond with a unionized workforce isn’t isolated to cane companies, either. Half of America’s sugar comes from sugarbeets and 100 percent of beet factories are unionized. In addition to IAM, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; International Longshore and Warehouse Union; Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union; Service Employees International Union; United Food and Commercial Workers International Union; Sugar Workers Union; and International Longshoremen’s Association all represent employees in the sugar industry.
These union workers receive strong salaries, a competitive benefits package, tuition, and certification reimbursement, and diversified safe workplaces.
It’s no wonder then that the international president of IAM – as well as leaders from several of other unions – weighed in so aggressively during Congress’ recent Farm Bill debate. As IAM explained in a letter to all House members:
U.S. sugar farmers and sugar workers deserve a level playing field and should not be forced to compete with farmers subsidized and supported by foreign governments whether by direct loans, cash incentives or foreign ethanol programs.
U.S. sugar policy supports good union jobs in rural and urban areas of the country. The U.S Congress should not support outsourcing these jobs to countries with low labor and environmental standards.
Simply put, organized labor’s message is crystal clear. U.S. sugar policy maintains good-paying jobs at home and that’s key to the survival of our communities.