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Stephen J. Lee, Forum Communications Co., Published January 31 2012

American Crystal Sugar, union still at odds on six-month anniversary of lockout

GRAND FORKS - After a formal seven-hour negotiating session Monday, locked-out union workers and American Crystal Sugar Co. officials left the table again without striking a deal to end the six-month-old labor dispute.

As the lockout enters its seventh month today, picketing activity by union members at the five Crystal factories in the Red River Valley has slackened, with fewer huddled in warming houses at the gates for fewer hours on fewer days.

Meanwhile, some locked-out workers have resigned from the Bakery Worker’s union in order to take non-permanent replacement jobs at the factories, said Brian Ingulsrud, Crystal’s vice president for administration and spokesman for the negotiations.

But union leader Scott Ripplinger said the union is standing strong and holding a “Get Back to Work” rally this morning at the front gate of the Crystal plant in East Grand Forks, Minn.

“We had a negotiating session yesterday that didn’t pan out that well,” Ripplinger said Tuesday. “We want to send the message that our members are ready to work whenever the company is ready to start things.”

Though some workers were demonstrating by the Moorhead plant Tuesday, Ripplinger said picketing has decreased over the six months of the lockout. About 1,300 union workers were locked out Aug. 1, after 95 percent of members voted to reject a contract proposed by Crystal.

Ingulsrud said Monday’s meeting between both sides in front of a federal mediator lasted seven hours.

“I guess you could say there was progress, in that the union did come with proposals that were different from what they had come with before,” he said, adding that the union offer still didn’t “really accept what we wanted in terms of a comprehensive proposal.”

The union offered concessions in agreeing to pay part of workers’ health insurance premiums but still didn’t agree to take the company’s proposed health plan, which is the same that management employees have, Ingulsrud said.

The company’s latest offer, made in late October, remains on the table, he said. It offers a 13 percent increase in average wages over the five years of the proposed contract, another year of free health insurance before workers would have to begin paying 17 percent of the premium costs and a guarantee that no union jobs would be lost under the new contract.

Union officials have said the health care costs would negate wage increases, and the Crystal proposal would strip union workers of too much of their job security.

“We are disappointed but no longer surprised at the company’s refusal to negotiate,” said Dan Kressin, a locked-out Crookston factory worker who is on the union’s negotiating team, in a news release Tuesday. “We made significant proposals that we believe address their issues. They did not bring a single new proposal to the table.”

In five meetings since late July, the union hasn’t addressed a key company concern, Ingulsrud said, “the ability to promote employees based on qualifications rather than seniority.” He said other beet sugar companies have union contracts that allow such work rules.

Union leaders said they believe Crystal factories need union workers because picketers can see the piles outside the plants of “re-melt” – sugar that does not meet the specifications of normal sugar customers – are larger than normal, they claimed in a news release.

“How long before customers begin to pull their business if quality continues to suffer?” asked Ross Perrin in the release.

Perrin, a Moorhead plant worker for 31 years, said the continuing lockout will threaten the federal sugar program, which might hamstring the industry.

The beet processing campaign is about two-thirds complete, Ingulsrud said, meaning the few hundred workers employed only during the campaign have little chance of any work this season. Once the campaign is over in early May, factories will begin their normal summer maintenance and repair period.

If union employees with the training and experience to do the specialized work are not back on the job, the company will have to hire outside contractors, which “takes some lead time,” Ingulsrud said.

It appears that about 1 in 5 of the replacement workers at the East Grand Forks plant are locals, hired more recently to replace out-of-state workers, Ripplinger said.

Ingulsrud won’t reveal how many local residents have been hired as long-term temporary replacement workers. “But I can tell you it’s consistently increasing all the time,” he said, and that the hiring process continues.

Federal law prohibits Crystal from permanently replacing locked-out union workers, but there’s no necessary deadline to such a lockout.

Ingulsrud said there are locked-out union members who have resigned from their union jobs and taken the new replacement jobs at Crystal factories, he said.

The company posted a notice about such deals, warning that the company can’t hire locked-out workers unless they resign from their position; then they “would be considered for future employment.”

But they would lose their seniority under the union contract and would have no guarantee of a job if the lockout ends.

Stephen J. Lee writes for the Grand Forks Herald