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Sweet'N Low Workers Rally Outside Fort Greene Packing Plant to Save Jobs

By Alexandra Leon | January 13, 2016 9:53am
 Sweet'N Low workers protested Cumberland Packing's decision to cease manufacturing operations in Fort Greene.
Sweet'N Low workers protested Cumberland Packing's decision to cease manufacturing operations in Fort Greene.
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DNAinfo/Alexandra Leon

FORT GREENE — Workers are saying “hell no” to Sweet’N Low manufacturer Cumberland Packing after the company announced last week it would end production at its Fort Greene plant.

Cumberland workers, elected officials and union leaders rallied outside the factory on Flushing Avenue and Cumberland Street Tuesday afternoon, urging the company to save more than 300 jobs and to give workers fair pay.

Protesters called specifically on Cumberland President and CEO Steven Eisenstadt to hear their plea, chanting in Spanish “Steven, escucha, estamos en la lucha,” or “Steven, hear us, we are in the fight.”

Cumberland, which has been in the neighborhood for more than 60 years, announced last week it would cease manufacturing operations in Brooklyn and instead outsource work to “co-packing” facilities that manufacture goods for multiple companies.

 Cumberland Packing announced it would close its Fort Greene plant.
Cumberland Packing announced it would close its Fort Greene plant.
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DNAinfo/Alexandra Leon

The company said it would keep its headquarters in Fort Greene and instead focus on product development, marketing, distribution and sales.

“We’re grateful to the company,” said Sweet’N Low packer Maria Mijangos. “We are just asking to keep our jobs and for a just salary.”

Mijangos, 46, and her husband, a 44-year-old truck driver, have both worked at Cumberland for 26 years. The couple from Queens has three children between the ages of 13 and 23, and Mijangos says she doesn’t know what the family would do if the company took her job away.

“It’ll affect our entire family,” she said.

For many employees like Mijangos, Cumberland has been home for decades.

“We’ve helped this company grow and now they don’t want to recognize the hard work we’ve done,” said Victor Nomberto, 66, a sugar packer who has worked at the company for 20 years.

Nomberto, who lives two blocks away from the plant, said he is suspicious of the abrupt decision to end manufacturing in Brooklyn.

The workers’ union was scheduled to meet with the company for contract negotiations last Thursday, but the union says the employer canceled at the last minute. Cumberland then announced it would shut down production on Friday.

“We’re outraged, to say the least,” said UFCW Local 2013 President Louis Mark Carotenuto.

Carotenuto said the workers, who have been called part of the Cumberland family, have since received little information about what’s going to happen to their jobs. He said he found out from a news release that the company was ending manufacturing operations due to competitive pressure. 

“I don’t see how you treat family like this,” Carotenuto said.

The family-owned company has said it would help workers find new jobs during the transition.

"In holding on to these jobs decades after the dollars and cents suggested otherwise, Cumberland's loyalty to its employees is clear," Eisenstadt said in a statement.

"Today, we're now ready to complete our transition and want to work with the union to help everyone who wants a job to find one."

Local leaders echoed workers’ suspicions at the protest, questioning the company’s motive for closing production

“This smells like a real estate deal at the expense of workers,” Public Advocate Letitia James said.

She said lawmakers would oppose rezoning of the Cumberland property if any such proposals were made, calling for accountability while citing Cumberland’s collection of $1.7 million in taxpayer subsidies since 2006.

“Your hand was open and now you want to close the door,” she said.

Meanwhile, city Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo called the move “gentrification” and vowed to keep local jobs.

“You built Brooklyn, New York, you should stay in Brooklyn, New York,” Cumbo said.