« Continue Browsing

e-mail article Print     e-mail article E-mail

Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald , Published February 02 2012

Breaking tradition: Crystal union to lobby against sugar program

GRAND FORKS - The Bakery Worker’s union now will lobby against the sugar program in Congress, according to a union official, breaking a long tradition of fighting for the program with farmers and American Crystal Sugar Co.

“We are going to do what we can to educate the urban legislators that are friendly to labor and tell them what Crystal Sugar is doing to the working class and the labor people,” John Riskey, president of Local 167, which represents locked-out employees of Crystal’s factories in East Grand Forks, Moorhead and Drayton, N.D.

“That doesn’t make any sense to me at all,” said Brian Ingulsrud, Crystal’s vice president for administration and spokesman on the contract negotiations. “I don’t know why you would want to lobby against an industry that has provided you with good jobs for many years and hopefully will in the future, as well.”

Riskey said it’s a needed response to the company’s new strategy since Aug. 1, when the company locked out union workers after the union rejected a proposed five-year contract.

“Right now, we don’t have jobs. Crystal Sugar locked us out,” he said.

It would be a reversal of the posture local Bakery Union officials have taken on Capitol Hill on the issue, Riskey acknowledged.

The sugar program’s key provision is limiting imports of sugar, propping up domestic sugar prices, which has helped make the industry of turning beets into sugar a long-term profitable deal.

It’s been typical for members of Congress from urban districts to see the sugar program as costing their constituents by inflating food prices, while in Minnesota and North Dakota, Democrat and Republican lawmakers nearly always unite in supporting the lucrative program.

“What we have done is fought side-by-side with Crystal Sugar and their shareholders and farmers of Crystal Sugar in Washington and lobbied for the sugar program,” Riskey said. “We lobbied labor-friendly Congressional leaders to explain to them what the sugar program does in the Red River Valley and elsewhere where sugar companies are established and told them it creates jobs and good-paying jobs. But right now that is not the case.”

Seven hours of negotiations Monday ended without agreement.

Wednesday morning, 20 to 25 locked-out workers rallied briefly outside the front gate of the Crystal factory in East Grand Forks.

Gathering at about 8 a.m., the group dispersed in about 20 minutes after making its point that locked out workers are ready to go back to work, Riskey said.

While one union leader said Tuesday he was hoping for 50 people or so, Riskey said he was not disappointed. The lock out is taking its toll on families and their pocketbooks, he said.

“They still need to put food on the table,” he said. “And in this economy we have here in North Dakota and Minnesota, there is plenty of work out there for people to find. What they are doing is making sure they keep their families going.”

The union continues to make weekly payments to locked-out employees of the Crystal factories in North Dakota, in Drayton and Hillsboro, which doesn’t allow unemployment payments to locked-out workers, as the state of Minnesota does for workers from the Crookston, East Grand Forks and Moorhead factories, Riskey said. The union receives donations nationwide, he said.

On Sunday, a semi-load of logs cut in northern Minnesota near Effie, will be delivered to East Grand Forks for warming the two wooden shacks housing picketers outside the Crystal factory, he said.

It’s a gift from Minnesota union members in Hastings and New Prague, Riskey said.

No further talks are scheduled, Riskey and Ingulsrud said.