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Striking United Auto Workers have offered to return to work at U.S. Sugar Co. in Buffalo, ending a 27-month walkout.

About 40 union workers struck the Buffalo sugar-packing plant on Sept. 13, 1995, after the company said it could no longer afford to contribute to their health and pension plans.

But after last Friday, when the company hired an undisclosed number of permanent replacements, the union offered to return to work while negotiations for a new contract continue.

"Nobody's pleased with the realities of the situation," said Edward McGowan, business representative for Local 55. "We're returning with a severe cut in our base agreement."

The lack of company contributions into health and pension plans means a cut of about 40 percent in workers' total compensation, he said. The average hourly wage for workers at U.S. Sugar is $7.91.

In addition, the company has put in automated equipment that has cut the number of unionized production jobs to less than 30, McGowan said.

The union capitulated because the company's unprofitable operations haven't improved, making progress on financial issues unlikely. "The company's been open with their financial documents," McGowan said. The figures indicated little or no profits for 1997.

U.S. Sugar packages brown and powdered sugar for sale under private-label brands, President William K. McDaniel Jr. said. The company staffed its Bailey Avenue plant with temporary replacements until recently, when it put an undisclosed number on permanent status.

"We have workers now who've been here through most of two years," McDaniel said. "We've put in new equipment that they've learned how to run."

The contract negotiation process was stalled, he said, with no meetings since July. The union had discussed the return to work offer as an option before, so it didn't come as a surprise, he said.

McDaniel said he could meet with the union as early as Jan. 6 to discuss the return to work. However, the highly seasonal business is entering its dormant period, meaning few union workers will be rehired anytime soon.

"We're going to continue to do what we need to do to insure the survival of the company," he said.

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