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Helmut Schmidt, Published November 04 2011

Sugar union questions United Way connection

FARGO – The presidents of the North Dakota and Minnesota AFL-CIO union federation want American Crystal Sugar CEO Dave Berg to either end his firm’s lockout of union workers or be removed from the United Way of Cass-Clay board of trustees.

But a United Way spokesman said the agency has no part in the labor dispute and won’t acquiesce to that demand.

Shar Knutson of Minnesota and Gary Granzotto of North Dakota said Friday that the three-month Crystal Sugar lockout has created economic hardships for the firm’s 1,300 union workers and their families.

They said the lockout has forced union members to use United Way services they supported with volunteer time and millions of dollars in contributions.

Berg is a member of the United Way board of trustees and chairman-elect of the group.

“It’s a contradiction for David Berg to be raising money for United Way while significantly adding to the number of people who need its services,” Granzotto said.

Berg declined to comment on the AFL-CIO statement.

“The United Way of Cass-Clay does not involve itself in labor disputes. That’s not our mission,” said Doug Hamilton, a member of the board of trustees.

“If there was a member of a union on our board, we certainly wouldn’t be having this discussion about him leaving, either,” Hamilton said. “I certainly don’t think this is fair.”

Knutson and Granzotto said the relationship between labor unions and the United Way was important, but that Berg and the Crystal Sugar lockout had strained those ties.

“The long-standing labor/United Way relationship is one we desire to continue. However, the relationship in the Red River Valley now seems to be in jeopardy due to the actions of a few,” Knutson said.

Granzotto warned that action is needed to prevent further damage to Crystal Sugar, union workers, local communities, or the local United Way.

“Dave Berg needs to either end this lockout or leave his position with the United Way,” Granzotto said.

Hamilton said United Way board members have their own opinions of the labor dispute, but they don’t talk about them at meetings.

“My concern is we have as effective a campaign as possible, because that’s the mission of the United Way,” he said.

“If we were to acquiesce to a demand like this, that would set a dangerous precedent,” Hamilton said. “That’s somebody else’s argument, not ours.”

Chris Shields, the St. Paul-based communications director for the Minnesota AFL-CIO, said there is no direct threat implicit in the union leaders’ remarks. Though, he said he’s heard that some union locals have withheld funds from the United Way because of Berg’s status as a trustee for the agency.

“We’re not talking about anything drastic right now,” Shields said.

He said the AFL-CIO wrote a letter to the United Way about Berg.

“They said they were going to stay neutral, but it’s kind of hard to stay neutral when more people are in need,” Shields said.

Shields said the AFL-CIO wants to bring public pressure to bear on the agency.

“We’re not prepared to recommend any action to our affiliates right now,” Shields said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583