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By Ryan Schuster, Forum Communications Co., Published September 01 2011

Once a corporate exec, Grand Forks union member now sees different side to Crystal Sugar lockout

GRAND FORKS – Gary Watts spoke in a soft Southern drawl as he sat on the couch of his family’s modest rental duplex in a quiet Grand Forks neighborhood.

Watts said he doesn’t regret leaving his once-fulfilling corporate job at Home Depot in Georgia or moving to Grand Forks to be closer to his wife’s ailing father two years ago.

“It was the best decision I could have ever made,” he said. “It was a real blessing in disguise. This is a good community with great people. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

He also said he has no regrets about his decision to leave a steady job at the J.R. Simplot Co. plant in Grand Forks a year ago to become a campaign worker with American Crystal Sugar Co.

Watts, 48, became a year-round employee of American Crystal’s East Grand Forks plant in July. Less than a month later, he was one of about 1,300 workers in union-represented positions who were locked out of American Crystal facilities by the company Aug. 1.

The lockout enters its second month today. Talks last week between union representatives, company officials and a federal mediator failed to yield any progress. No new talks have been scheduled.

Watts said leaving his job as a package operator at the Simplot plant to become a forklift driver at American Crystal’s East Grand Forks facility was a better opportunity for him and his family.

He said he had little sympathy for unions when he was working as safety coordinator at Home Depot’s corporate headquarters in Atlanta, a position he says paid about $70,000 a year. When the economic downturn hit, he said, corporate headquarters’ employees’ pay was cut by half.

After taking a job in Nashville, Tenn., Watts and his new wife, Marie, decided to move closer to her father, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

New perspective

At first, he was apprehensive about being represented by the union, he said.

“I had never been in a union before,” Watts said. “Once I started working for this company, my eyes began to open a little bit. Working for corporate and working for the union, I can actually see what’s going on. The union is not being greedy. It’s quite the contrary. For a company that’s been as profitable as American Crystal over the years, there should be no reason that they shouldn’t help these people out.”

The company has maintained that proposed wording changes to the contract would not allow the company to subcontract out work already done by union workers, resulting in layoffs.

Watts said he worries the language change would allow the company to outsource jobs like his position as a forklift driver.

“I just feel like they are doing everything in their power to break the union,” he said.

American Crystal management has denied it is attempting to break or weaken the union.

‘Plugging along’

Watts said the lockout and the resulting loss of income have not weakened union members’ resolve.

“We just keep plugging along,” he said. “We’re not down. We’re not giving up.”

Watts spends about four hours most days on the picket line.

Marie Watts wouldn’t mind seeing her husband return to work.

“He’s driving us crazy,” she said of herself and her son, Dylan. “He needs to get back to work.”

Since Gary Watts is employed by a plant in Minnesota, he has been drawing unemployment.

Staying positive

Watts said he is eager to return to work. He said “sooner or later” the lockout will end and he will return to work.

After what they have been through the past few years, the family is counting its blessings and trying to remain positive.

“Life is so short,” Marie Watts said. “Why worry about the things you can’t change? Right now, it’s not in our hands. We just have to have faith that it’s going to work out. We’ve been worse off.”

Ryan Schuster writes for the Grand Forks Herald