Fri, May 30, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Sweet intentions leave workers stranded

US Sugar management is accused of taking advantage of a well-meaning federal initiative to cut its workers out of deals in which they had a crucial stake

By Mary Williams Walsh  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , CLEWISTON, FLORIDA

They and other former US Sugar workers said they had planned to attend the company’s annual meeting this month so they could tell management their complaints as shareholders.

But this year, for the first time, the company announced that employee-shareholders would not be allowed to attend the annual meeting. It said that they were not the shareholders of record, and that as a result they would be represented by the trustee of their plan, US Trust Co.

A spokeswoman for the Bank of America, which owns US Trust, said the company believed it had fulfilled all of its duties as the trustee but otherwise declined to comment.

Experts said it was unusual to bar participants in employee stock plans from shareholders’ meetings.

“It is legal,” said Loren Rodgers, project director for the National Center for Employee Ownership.

But he cited research showing that worker-owned companies tended to achieve better results when they give workers a say in operations.

Rodgers said that Congress had struggled with the question of how much of a voice to give worker-owners. Ultimately, he said, lawmakers decided to limit the workers’ powers out of concern that companies might avoid the structure if workers received full rights as shareholders.

Many former workers at US Sugar acknowledged that they had never attempted to attend an annual meeting until now. But that did not quell their anger at discovering they could not.

“It was real nasty, the company to do us like they did us,” said Tommy Miller, who retired last fall after 32 years as a supervisor in a locomotive repair shop.

He was only 56 but was caught in a mass layoff.

He said he cashed out his shares and invested in an individual retirement account, only to learn that a bidder had been willing to pay him a lot more.

“So you took my job and you took my stock, too,” Miller said.

HARSH FACE

The workers describe a harsh new face on a company once known for its paternalistic culture. US Sugar was bought out of bankruptcy during the Great Depression by Mott, an entrepreneur who believed companies should work to strengthen the towns where they did business.

Mott, who started out making bicycle wheels and ended up with the largest single block of General Motors stock, created charities in Flint, Michigan, and also provided tiny Clewiston with swimming pools, libraries and a youth center.

“When somebody’s child got hurt or was seriously ill, the company would fly that child to a hospital in Tampa, or wherever they needed to go,” said John Perry, a former mayor of Clewiston. “This was a wonderful, wonderful place to live.”

But homey local culture could not survive the chill winds of globalization. The North American Free Trade Agreement raised the prospect of a flood of cheap sugar from Mexico and other countries with low wages. US Sugar scrambled to lower its costs.

Ellen Simms, US Sugar’s former comptroller, said that when the company had to trim its payroll, it seemed to choose people with many years at the company.

“It was very obvious, with few exceptions, that they were targeting the employees who had been there the most time and who had the most ESOP shares,” she said.

She resigned in protest in 2004.

Meanwhile, the falling stock price reported in the appraisals was a boon to the company, she said, because it made it cheaper to buy out the workers.

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