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

American Crystal Sugar officials meet with grower-shareholders

CROOKSTON, Minn. – A small contingent of locked-out American Crystal Sugar Co. union workers greeted sugar beet growers as they arrived at and left an informal shareholder meeting arranged by the company at a farm near here Wednesday.

Union workers held up large banners that read: “We want to work for you” on two roads leading to the farm between Crookston and Fisher.

American Crystal Sugar spokesman Jeff Schweitzer characterized the meetings, which are being held at different farms in each district this week, as regular informal shareholder meetings. Schweitzer would not say what is being discussed at the closed meetings or confirm if the lockout or contract negotiations are being addressed.

The contract representing about 1,300 union workers at American Crystal’s five sugar processing plants and two other sites expired July 31. American Crystal locked out union workers and some non-union workers in union-represented positions on Aug. 1 and has brought in replacement workers to run its plants.

Union spokesman Mark Froemke, who was among a group of about five union supporters who held up the banners Wednesday alongside two roads leading to the farm, said he believes that the lockout is a topic of discussion, as well as other potential topics.

The company announced last week to its grower shareholders that pre-pile harvest will begin Tuesday. It would not be unusual for the company to update growers about plans for the fall harvest at meetings this time of year. Plans for this year’s harvest will be more complicated as a result of the lockout and bringing in replacement workers to run the company’s five Red River Valley sugar beet processing plants, and hiring more to work as campaign workers.

No more talks have been scheduled, according to company and union officials. Attempts to reach federal mediator Jeanne Frank of Minneapolis for comment were unsuccessful.

American Crystal has sugar processing plants in East Grand Forks, Crookston and Moorhead in Minnesota and Drayton and Hillsboro in North Dakota.

Ryan Schuster writes for the Grand Forks Herald.