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Stephen J. Lee, Forum Communications Co., Published June 03 2012

'Go talk with your brother': Sides in Crystal labor dispute come together to pray

CROOKSTON – With union members camping overnight here in a caravan bound for American Crystal Sugar Co.’s headquarters in Moorhead, people from both sides and several faiths in the long-running labor dispute over processing sugar beets met for prayer in the cathedral.

Clergy from four denominations, including two bishops, led about 200 in a liturgy of “Prayer for Healing, Reconciliation and the Common Good for Crystal Sugar Management, Workers, Family, Friends and Communities.”

Bishop Michael Hoeppner of the Catholic Diocese of Crookston organized the service, saying it was a good time for such a coming together, five days before company and union officials meet for the first time since Jan. 30.

Hate comes from darkness

Hoeppner read from the first letter of John: “If you hate your brother, you still are in darkness. If you love your brother, you are in the Light.”

He told of his experience counseling a father involved in the 1980s Hormel strike in Austin, Minn., who later became so distraught over being estranged from his son because of the conflict that he took his own life.

“Life is more than what we do,” Hoeppner told the congregation.

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America spoke about resolving conflicts.

The Christian faith makes clear “we will get sideways with each other,” Wohlrabe said. “What should we do? We shouldn’t sit on it. Go talk with your brother.”

Three Crookston pastors – The Revs. Michelle Miller of Wesley United Methodist, Jo Gast of Trinity Lutheran and Daniel Wolpert of the Presbyterian Church – joined the two bishops in the sun-lit Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Crookston to read the liturgy and prayers.

Congregation praises service

Longtime Minnesota Sen. Keith Langseth, D-Moorhead, attended and said he hoped it would do some good.

“I’m concerned about 1,300 workers being out of work,” he said. He’s also concerned that Crystal growers could harvest another “huge” crop based on the early spring and nice-looking crop so far. If that happens, he’s not sure the replacement workers could handle it, said Langseth, who isn’t running for re-election after 36 years in the Legislature.

American Crystal board members Brian Erickson from East Grand Forks, Minn., and Buzz Baldwin from Drayton, N.D., said the service was a good thing.

“I think it was very necessary,” said Baldwin.

David Berg, president and CEO of American Crystal, and Brian Ingulsrud, vice president of administration, who handles negotiations, were invited to the prayer service but had prior commitments, Baldwin said.

John Riskey, the union local president from Drayton, said the service reinforced the way he was raised: “It was God first, then family, then your job.”

Crystal, union to meet Friday

When he meets Friday morning with Crystal’s company representatives for the fourth round of talks since the lockout began, Riskey said he’s hopeful that the “family we have at Crystal” will be reconciled and union members will get a contract they can support.

Since the Bakery Workers union members rejected American Crystal’s offer of a new five-year contract and the company then locked out about 1,300 union workers Aug. 1, there have been two rounds of negotiations.

The company hired temporary replacement workers. Many locked-out workers took other jobs or enrolled in college classes. Under federal law, a company cannot permanently replace locked-out workers.

In a bid to gain public support, union members began a 200-mile, seven-day trek by haywagon and on foot on Thursday from Drayton, N.D., to Moorhead, hitting each of the five American Crystal factories – the others are in East Grand Forks and Hillsboro, N.D. – on the way.

Several camped in Crookston’s Central Park on Sunday night.

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Lee writes for the Grand Forks Herald