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Ryan Schuster, Forum Communications Co., Published August 06 2011

Non-union Crystal workers say union workers harassed them

HILLSBORO, N.D. – Two non-union American Crystal Sugar Co. workers claim they and a third non-union worker were called names and threatened with retribution by picketing union workers while holding up their own signs this week outside the company’s sugar processing plant in Hillsboro.

Janitors Karen Seablom and Char Hoff, who are not union members but work in positions represented by the union contract, said they were picketing to show displeasure with being locked out of their jobs along with union workers.

Seablom, Hoff and a third non-union worker joined picketing union workers at the plant Monday – the day American Crystal first locked out workers.

Seablom held up a pink sign that read “The union vote took my job I want it back.” Hoff held up a sign that read “Stop the bull we just want to work.”

“They called us scabs; they called us rats,” Seablom said. “They used a lot of words I don’t want to use.”

Gayln Olson, the local union president who represents the Hillsboro plant, said he was not at the factory at the time, but he heard from union members that non-union employees were asked what they were doing and if they wanted to join the union. Olson said he did not have any direct knowledge of abusive language or threats against the non-union workers.

Seablom, 66, says she and the other non-union employees did not intend to offend union members.

“I wasn’t picketing against the union,” she said. “I was picketing the fact I’m locked out, too. We wanted non-union employees’ voice spoken that we wanted our jobs back.”

Olson stressed that the company locked out the workers. He also pointed out that the workers could have voted on the proposal if they had joined the union.

“Were people upset about (non-union workers picketing)? Of course they were,” Olson said. “That is a form of union bashing.”

The vast majority of the locked-out workers are among the approximately 1,300 union em­ployees at the nation’s largest sugar beet producer, which has processing plants in East Grand Forks and Moorhead in Minnesota and Drayton and Hillsboro in North Dakota and packaging and transportation sites in Chaska, Minn., and Mason City, Iowa.

Of the 206 year-round union-represented workers at the Hillsboro plant, Olson says about 200 are members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, with a number of new members joining up since the lockout started.

Union officials say the verbal exchange at the Hillsboro plant was an isolated incident and that they did not know of other similar occurrences at other American Crystal plants. Union representatives say there have not been any altercations between union picketers and replacement workers.

The company locked out its union contract employees after their contract expired without an agreement. A union vote overwhelmingly rejected the company’s last contract offer a week ago.

American Crystal has contracted with Strom Engineering of Minnetonka, Minn., to bring in out-of-area replacement workers during the lockout.

Union officials have expressed a willingness to return to the negotiating table, but no talks have been scheduled between the two sides. The company has signaled publicly that it is comfortable continuing to use replacement workers.


Ryan Schuster writes for the Grand Forks Herald