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Published May 30 2012

American Crystal union lobbies for give and take in talks

MOORHEAD – American Crystal Sugar union leaders say they’re willing to give on some key sticking points when they sit down for talks with company management next week, but need a similar attitude from the other side of the negotiating table to make progress toward ending the 10-month-old lockout.

“Are we willing to bend? Of course we’re willing to bend,” said Galyn Olson, a local union president from Hillsboro, N.D.

He said the union hopes Crystal managers move off what they have termed their last and final offer. Last week, Crystal president and chief executive David Berg said shareholders have expressed “essentially no willingness to bend” on that offer, which has been on the table since last fall.

When the two sides meet June 8 – their first meeting since February – the union says it will make a new proposal to address company concerns. Specifically, it plans to address issues of promotion and seniority.

Olson wouldn’t discuss the details of the new offer during a meeting with The Forum’s Editorial Board. He also said the union can only give so much.

“We can’t go out there and give away the seniority rights of everyone,” he said.

He said the union has already conceded to many of the company’s proposals on health care costs but wants greater cost certainty.

John Riskey, another union leader, said the company is leaving big money on the table by not having its most experienced employees on hand for the beet-processing campaign.

“We’ve got members who know how to make these factories tick,” Riskey said.

Crystal is paying out an average of $59 per ton to growers from the last harvest, lower than some other beet companies and well below the company’s record payout of $73 per ton last year. The Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D., is paying $72 per ton, and Riskey said some companies are paying as much as $80.

“That’s a lot of money for farmers not to be making,” he said.

He also said many growers want union workers back on the job, and a few have even supported union workers financially throughout the lockout.

Crystal managers acknowledge that the costs of the lockout hurt the payout, though they won’t say how much.

But they also say replacement workers – hundreds of whom are new local hires rather than out-of-state fill-ins – are performing admirably, and that the lockout’s toll on the company’s bottom line is falling steadily.

Management and the union have offered dueling outlooks for this year’s crop. Last week, managers told The Forum that falling sugar prices and recent weather conditions have tempered their expectations for the year. The union says it could be a gangbusters season with big profits at stake.

The lockout has no sunset date or other mechanism for automatic resolution. But Olson said his sense is that the end is achievable.

“We do not see this going on indefinitely,” he said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502