A bitter debate underway in southern Florida could result in job losses for several hundred IAM-represented sugar production workers and wide-ranging repercussions on local businesses.           

WATCH: Protecting Sugar Workers’ Way of Life

“I’ve worked in the sugar industry for 40 years,” said IAM District 166 Business Representative Robert Miller. “We probably supply the sugar for the whole Northeast, the Southeast and a little of the Midwest.”

State lawmakers are considering a bill to flood 60,000 acres of farmland currently occupied by several sugar plants near Lake Okeechobee, a move that would mean mass mill closures. Environmentalists are pushing the state to turn the farmland into filtering reservoirs to help clean toxic waters.

“That would be the last straw. If they do this, there is nothing left because families will be destroyed,” said IAM Local 2152 President Edward Garcia. “It’s a domino effect. All your local mom and pop stores and big stores would all go down because one way or another they all depend on the farming industry.”

“We have generations of members who have worked these mills to provide sugar for the country, and to put food on their families’ tables,” said IAM Southern Territory General Vice President Mark Blondin. “Workers have seen jobs disappear because of overseas sugar for years. This new law will do more harm to the economy than any help it may do for the environment.”

A long drive from the job-rich region of metro Miami, Lake Okeechobee linked communities have been hit hard by high unemployment in recent years. Local union members are concerned about the prospect of a shuttered sugar industry, which was built on the backs of middle-class families.

“I love the environment. I love the animals. It’s very important to me,” said Garcia. “But there has to be a balance.”