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By Linda Boyd Coates, Published December 03 2011

Crystal devalues our values

One thing I learned from my recent stint as a member of the contract negotiating team for the Fargo Public Schools is that no one outside the bargaining room can actually know the intricacies and details of the negotiations. While the American Crystal Sugar situation has been chronicled extensively in the media, I am reluctant to second-guess the details of the negotiations themselves.

What I also learned, however, is that negotiating from a position of shared values is vitally important. The most highly held shared value that the Fargo School Board and the Fargo Education Association never wavered from, at any moment during this challenging negotiating year, was that the teachers who work in our schools are our most valued resource. We felt that our job was to do the very best we could for our teachers with the financial resources we had available.

That is why I simply cannot fathom the attitude voiced by American Crystal CEO David Berg when he referred to their labor contract as a “cancerous tumor” that prevented the company from “doing what needed to be done.”

Unfortunately, this ugly attitude seems to be sweeping the country. The workers who have made companies profitable through their labor, who agreed to concessions when times were bad, are being asked to “go backward” when times are good.

According to a recent US Commerce Department report, corporate profits as a percentage of the total economy are HIGHER than they have been since the 1920s, and wages as a percentage of the total economy are LOWER than they have been since the 1920s.

It was only 30 years ago that the average CEO pay was 30 times the pay of the average worker – today that has ballooned to over 300 times the pay of the average worker. Income disparity in America is reaching levels that have proven to be historically dangerous to any nation’s social fabric.

Does this mean that wealthy people and CEOs are bad guys? Of course not. What it does mean, however, is that we are perilously off-balance. Henry Ford, hardly a bleeding-heart liberal, understood nearly 100 years ago that unless workers were paid enough, there would not be a market for his cars.

When it comes home to Fargo-Moorhead, we are talking about our friends and neighbors. Pre-emptively locking the doors and shipping in cheaper labor from depressed areas of southern states is a shocking departure from a spirit of shared values.

The dedication, expertise and hard work of the American Crystal employees have made it possible for the owners to enjoy generous profits this year. These same workers have made concessions when times were tough. Now it’s time to treat them as truly valued members of the Red River Valley’s sugar production family, not a cancerous tumor to be cut away and thrown in the trash.

Boyd Coates is executive director of the FN Symphony, a member of the Fargo School Board and a former Fargo city commissioner.