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Frank Hurt,, Published May 12 2012

Outrageous Crystal lockout will haunt sugar industry

On Aug. 1, 2011, the American Crystal Sugar Co. executed a fateful business decision that has resulted in enormous hardship for thousands of families and will have severe and far-reaching consequences for years to come.

Crystal Sugar’s decision to lock out more than 1,300 of its workers from their jobs nine months ago upended a way of life in communities throughout the Red River Valley, ruptured family relationships and put in jeopardy the very stability of the U.S. sugar beet industry.

Unlike the men and women who worked at Crystal before the lockout and who call the valley home, replacement workers couldn’t care less about the company they work for or the communities in which they are temporarily living. They are transients, hired by Strom Engineering, an employment mercenary of the worst kind.

The record

Because so much has been written and spoken about our members and this union over the past nine months, it is important to set the record straight. The company’s claim that it locked out its workers to avoid a strike is double talk and a smokescreen. At no time in negotiations did representatives from the BCTGM threaten to strike.

This union goes into every set of negotiations looking for a fair and equitable settlement. The union concludes nearly 99 percent of our negotiations without a work stoppage, one of the best records in the labor movement. In fact, this is exactly what I told company executives Dave Berg and Joe Talley directly in a meeting in my office eight months before the lockout.

Lockout planned

We know that the company was planning this lockout many months in advance – long before negotiations even began. Common sense alone tells us that a company does not replace 1,300 workers at five sophisticated and massive manufacturing facilities entering a critical phase of production without very extensive preparation.

The members of the local unions involved voted on two occasions by more than 90 percent to reject the company’s proposals. The members who voted on this contract are intelligent, hardworking people. They knew exactly what they were voting on and were guided only by their conscience, experience and desire to protect their rights and the standard of living of their families.

Since Crystal has refused for months now to engage in any meaningful and legitimate negotiations, it can only be concluded that the people running this company have no interest in ending this travesty. They have put their own financial self-interest ahead of the interest of their neighbors and communities.

Workers helped

All labor disputes come to an end one way or another. And this one will as well. But what is unique about this situation is just how unnecessary all of the suffering has been. Crystal Sugar had dedicated and productive workers who cared deeply about the success of the company and the industry in which they worked.

And they proved it the scores of times they came to Washington, D.C., and met with legislators to defend a company and an industry to which they have devoted so much of their lives. The company’s decision to fracture a highly effective labor-management partnership will haunt the sugar beet industry in Washington for years to come.

Greed, malice

Berg, Talley and the other executives at Crystal will likely move on some day to other jobs or retirement. Undoubtedly, they will live quite comfortably. But their legacy will be the misery of the workers who lost everything they worked so hard for all of their lives, the children who never had a chance to realize their dreams and a broken trust between a company and its devoted workers, who never imagined they would be the victims of corporate greed and malice.

Hurt is BCTGM International Union president.

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