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Published January 11 2012

Union leaders request federal mediator

MOORHEAD – Union leaders representing the 1,300 locked-out workers of American Crystal Sugar Co. put in an official request Wednesday for a federal mediator in the hopes of renewing negotiations.

The lockout has been in place since Aug. 1, after workers rejected a final contract offer from the company.

Subsequent attempts to resolve the dispute have failed, and company executives and union representatives haven’t met at the negotiating table since October.

John Riskey, president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 167G, said the union is “is committed to staying at the table for as long as it takes to reach a fair agreement.”

“We have and continue to offer significant compromise proposals that are beneficial to both the company and workers,” Riskey said in a statement. “We are hopeful the company does the same and joins us at the table for as long as it takes.”

Crystal Sugar Vice President Brian Ingulsrud said Wednesday afternoon the company hadn’t received the union’s latest request to meet.

“We’ve been willing to meet in the past whenever contacted by the federal mediator, and I expect we will in the future as well,” Ingulsrud said.

In the statement, union leaders cite an unspecified report that they claim shows the lockout has cost the Red River Valley more than $12 million in lost economic activity.

American Crystal hired replacement workers to continue operations at its facilities in the valley through the lockout.

“This lockout has divided families, neighbors, and the entire Red River Valley community,” Riskey said in his statement. “It’s time to get back to the table and end the lockout.”

Meanwhile, Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken repeated his frustrations about the lockout to The Forum’s editorial board Wednesday.

Franken, like other government leaders, has tried unsuccessfully to facilitate negotiations that would end the lockout.

“I didn’t think it would last this long,” he said. “It’s not for someone outside this industry to judge who’s right and who’s wrong, but I think for the health of the valley, these two sides need to come together.”

On the national stage, the business-labor dispute could have negative impacts for the next farm bill, which includes the no-cost sugar program, he said.

Franken added that it’s too soon to know whether the program might be cut, but Indiana Republican Sen. Dick Lugar has a plan that would remove the sugar program entirely and it could garner enough support to pass.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541