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Published January 12 2012

Forum editorial: Get sugar talks back on track

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., is trying to bring union and management back to the American Crystal Sugar bargaining table, but thus far he’s had little success. The locked-out union again this week made known its willingness to return to contract talks with a federal mediator, but the company has shown no serious inclination to do so. That’s too bad.

First, no matter the final outcome of the contract dispute, observers must remember the situation was precipitated by a lockout, not a strike. The union never intended to stop working during contract talks. When the old contract expired, the company locked the gates, and the gates have stayed locked to union workers since Aug. 1.

Second, the union appears to have taken a hard line on provisions of the new contract (rejected twice by the rank and file) regarding company priorities such as drug testing and seniority as it applies to new technologies.

Without knowing all the details and machinations behind the new contract and previous talks, the objective right or wrong of either side can’t be fairly determined. The company insists it’s not engaged in union-busting, but if the lockout continues, the result will be a busted union. For its part, the local union seems to be taking its marching orders from regional and national union leaders whose priorities might be different from local workers who just want to go back to work.

Franken raised another real concern: the fate of the federal sugar program. One of his colleagues, respected Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., is preparing legislation to end the program, which limits sugar imports and thus keeps domestic sugar prices at a level U.S. producers need to make a profit. Union support has always been part of the equation to protect and extend the program, along with industry lobbying and supportive members of Congress. Franken believes the lockout and contract dispute could spell an end to vital union support in Washington, and that could mean lawmakers who depend on union backing would toss the sugar program overboard.

Asked if the company has made that calculation, Franken said he did not know. Or could it be the company has concluded that the sugar program will be gone no matter what, and jettisoning the union in order to cut labor costs is part of a strategy to keep the company healthy without the program?

As we have said before, the best option for the company, workers and the economy of the Red River Valley – to say nothing of beginning to heal the hurt the lockout has caused – is to return to the bargaining table. That’s the good faith route for the union and the company.


Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.