Sweet and sour: Sweet’N Low closing Fort Greene factory, firing 320 workers

Sweet and sour: Sweet’N Low closing Fort Greene factory, firing 320 workers
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

They’re trading little pink packets for pink slips.

The company that has made artificial sweetener Sweet’N Low in Fort Greene since 1946 abruptly announced on Friday that it will shut its factory within the year, leaving 320 long-serving employees with a bad taste in their mouth.

“I feel very hurt, because I put a lot of work into this company,” said Delbert Ranger of Bedford-Stuyvesant, who has worked at the Cumberland Street factory for six years. “A lot of people have been here for 20, 30, 40 years expecting to retire, and this is the thanks they get.”

Cumberland Packing Corporation — which also makes Sugar in the Raw — told workers it will start letting people go as early as May, as it outsources all of its packing and manufacturing operations to stay competitive with rival sugar makers.

The announcement came completely out of the blue, said the workers’ union rep — the 60-year-old family-owned company has had ample opportunity to let it know that it was in trouble and try to work out a way save the plant in recent months, but instead closed ranks.

Cumberland had been meeting with the union to renegotiate the workers’ contract since September, but hadn’t said a word, said the rep, and it blew off the last two meetings claiming senior management was too busy to attend.

“To say we’re outraged puts it mildly,” said Louis Carotenuto, president of the Brooklyn chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents the workers.

The company’s attorney sent the union’s lawyers a vague notice about a meeting with workers the day before the announcement, then rounded up factory employees on Friday afternoon to break the news out of the blue before sending workers home early, Carotenuto said.

Cumberland honchos told workers the closure pained them greatly, said Carotenuto, but if they truly regretted having to close shop, they should have been straightforward about their problems and put more effort into preserving workers’ jobs, he said.

“If it’s ‘with a heavy heart,’ they wouldn’t be ceasing operations,” he said. “They would be giving the union and workers the ability to work through this issue.”

The company — which will keep its offices in Brooklyn — says it will work with the union and state agencies to find the employees new jobs.

“We want to work with the union to help everyone find a new job if they want one,” said board member and former chief executive Jeff Eisenstadt in a statement.

But the union and workers say they won’t go quietly — they rallied outside the plant on Tuesday, where Borough President Adams joined them in calling for the company to keep the plant open. Both the city and state have given the company taxpayer-funded subsidies over the years, the Beep said, so it owes Brooklynites better.

“Sweet’N Low has a proud history in Brooklyn, but the plan to eliminate hundreds of manufacturing jobs would be a truly bitter pill to swallow for our borough,” said Adams. “I urge Cumberland Packing Corporation to come back to the negotiating table and bargain in good faith.”

Cumberland declined to address any of the unions’ allegations.

Reach reporter Allegra Hobbs at ahobbs@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–8312.