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James Ferragut, Published August 21 2011

Ferragut: A reality check for sugar union

Labor unions played a major role in the industrial revolution. The relationship between workers and owners was adversarial; labor unions organized to protect unskilled, unaffiliated workers. Simply put, employers mistreated the rank and file. Working conditions, work hours, rates of pay, job security and retirement were non-negotiable. Unions demanded and got balance between workers’ rights and employers’ expectations.

Can you name five “union towns” in the United States? Easy. Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Pittsburg, Boston. Fargo? Not so much.

Fargo was built on trade, commerce, education, medicine, agriculture and entrepreneurial risk. The only time we are exposed to union issues is during contract talks for teachers, nurses and industrial workers. Now, American Crystal Sugar’s lockout of its workers is in the headlines.

My intention isn’t to debate who’s right and who’s wrong. The bigger issue is the relative value of unions to employers who are subject to the fickle winds of the economy.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost jobs in the past three years. Workers have accepted jobs below their education level, below their skill set, and worst of all, below their previous pay levels. Millions are trying to negotiate life with less money and more stress. Mom with two jobs while Dad moonlights is the norm. Jobless adult kids are moving back home. College graduates are behind the career-track eight ball because education loans are due but jobs aren’t there.

So when we read about union employees who have been with American Crystal Sugar for 31 years or 28 years or even 15 years, we envy the security but wonder at the contract issues. An 8 percent increase in pay this year? Really? A 17 percent increase in pay over the next five years? Really? A slight increase in the worker cost for medical insurance? Really? And they’re demanding job security is spelled out in iron-clad terms? Really?

They should look at life from our side of the jobs equation. Job security is elusive, subject to the whims of the economy, the fiscal competence of an employer, and often one’s own abilities.

Have they thought about the single parents who make minimum wage or slightly better and have to make decisions week in and week out about whether to pay rent or the medical insurance bill for the month? Let alone paying for food, gas, clothing and school supplies?

It’s likely some union grievances are legitimate. But look at what’s being offered: a 17 percent pay raise and a five-year guaranteed employment contract from a rock-solid, employee-friendly company that is willing to pay for 83 percent of health insurance premiums.

Union workers think that’s stingy? For the rest of us, it looks like a gift from heaven.

Ferragut is a marketing consultant and contributor to The Forum’s commentary page.