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Published October 29 2011

Three months into lockout, American Crystal workers feel pinch

DRAYTON. N.D. – Brad Nelson will visit Pembina County Social Services to apply for heating fuel assistance next week. He’s never done it before, but after three months without a paycheck, the locked-out American Crystal Sugar Co. worker and union representative could use the help.

“I probably should have done that months ago, but I was hopeful that we were going to come to a resolution,” he said.

That hasn’t happened yet, and as the labor dispute drags on, many of the company’s 1,300 employees who’ve been off the job since the end of July are scrimping and scrounging for help to make ends meet.

The financial squeeze has been more acute for workers from the company’s Drayton and Hillsboro plants, where North Dakota state law disqualifies locked-out employees from receiving unemployment benefits.

North Dakota State Sen. Tim Mathern has proposed legislation that would make those employees eligible for benefits. The legislature could take up the bill during its upcoming special session, though the prospects for passage remain unclear.

In the meantime, American Crystal workers in North Dakota have relied on savings, fill-in jobs, and donations of food and supplies to stay afloat. Some have turned to food stamps, Medicaid and other assistance programs.

They’re also getting $100 a week from the international Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union. It’s not much, Nelson said, but every bit helps.

“It’s difficult, and it’s getting harder,” he said. “You begin to wonder how you’re going to make it through November, and winter’s coming.”

Nelson, an American Crystal employee for 32 years, has cut back on groceries, driving, and treats for his four grandchildren. His fiancée, also a locked-out worker, found part-time bartending work at her uncle’s bar. Others have found work with local farmers and businesses, though Nelson has spent most of his time tending to his union duties.

He said he expected a lockout, and had been preaching to his co-workers to plan for one, but didn’t think it would last this long.

“You always think, ‘How would I ever get by if I lost my job?’ I think this has been a big reality check for a lot of people,” he said.

The lockout hasn’t been a bit easier on employees of the company’s Minnesota plants, including those in East Grand Forks, Crookston, and Moorhead. Those workers are eligible for unemployment benefits under Minnesota law.

Carol Stefonek, an employee at the Moorhead plant, said those benefits amount to perhaps a third of what she made on the job. She said she’s cut non-essential items from her budget such as scratch-off lottery tickets and impulse buys at the grocery store.

“I think you learn to spend money a little less foolishly, mind your dollars and cents a lot more closely,” she said.

In the absence of a job, she said she’s spent much of her free time volunteering at a local animal rescue nonprofit she helps run.

Ross Perrin, a union representative at the Moorhead plant, said he’s gotten by with similar cutbacks: no eating out, no trips to the lake just for fun.

“You just don’t do the extras,” he said.

He said union members and sympathizers have rallied behind locked-out workers. Donations of supplies and cash have come in from everyone from members to other local unions to national groups.

A few potato growers recently dropped off pickup trucks full of food. The Minneapolis AFL-CIO donated 80 bags of food and supplies – most of it bound for workers in Drayton and Hillsboro.

“The support is overwhelming,” Perrin said. And while workers aren’t happy to make do with less, he said, “they know that they have to stay strong.”

But Nelson, the Drayton union representative, said the union also doesn’t want to force its members into indefinite hardship. That’s one major reason why the union will vote on American Crystal Sugar’s latest proposal in the coming days, even though many union leaders have said they’re unimpressed with the offer.

“We’ve heard from many of our members saying, ‘Why are we even voting on it?’ ” he said. “In the end, I’m not running anybody’s finances. They’ve got to vote their heart, and they’ve got to vote their pocketbook.”

However that vote goes, he said, paychecks and cutbacks are only part of the cost of a lockout that’s driven a wedge through his small community.

“It’s pitting farmers against employees, and families against families, and neighbors against neighbors,” Nelson said.

Nelson himself skipped the dance at his niece’s recent wedding reception to avoid a confrontation with his older brother, an American Crystal manager on the other side of the labor dispute.

The two haven’t spoken since the lockout began, Nelson said, and he isn’t sure they ever will again.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502