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Shar Knutson, Published October 24 2011

American Crystal worker lockout puts sugar program at more risk

Anyone involved with growing sugar beets, producing sugar, or bringing the product to market knows the importance of the federal government’s sugar program. The program puts a limit on how much sugar is imported to the United States. The program has created a fair market for Red River Valley sugar beet growers to earn a living and created good-paying jobs in the production facilities for many decades.

Now, American Crystal Sugar’s lockout of 1,300 workers and their families is putting the entire sugar program at risk. An agricultural bill backed by Democratic senators Richard Durbin of Illinois and Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Republicans Richard Lugar of Indiana and John Thune of South Dakota that would eliminate the sugar program entirely is gaining serious momentum in Congress.

In the past, attempts to eliminate the sugar program have been stopped because the sugar industry worked with organized labor. Labor-friendly members of Congress without sugar beet farms in their districts or states supported the program in previous years because of the once-positive labor relations at companies like American Crystal.

With American Crystal’s recent treatment of union workers, it’s going to be extremely difficult for organized labor to get behind the sugar program once again. Labor-friendly members of Congress from non-sugar producing areas will also have a hard time supporting an industry that is treating workers as poorly as American Crystal is right now.

It’s time to face facts. Without the sugar program in place, Red River Valley beet sugar will no longer be able to compete with cheap imports. American Crystal could cut its labor costs to zero, and imports would still be cheaper.

However, the sugar program can still be saved. American Crystal Sugar should end this divisive lockout and work with the union on negotiating a contract that ensures job security for workers, continued profitability for the company, and prosperity for the region.

If American Crystal Sugar can end its campaign against its workers, I know we can work together to ensure the sugar program continues for generations to come.

Knutson is the president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO. She is former president of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation.