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Published June 16 2012

Crystal lockout isn’t done, but is it over?

MOORHEAD – Some are ready to take the deal, imperfect as it may be.

Others would rather walk away for good than concede defeat with nothing to show for 10 months of hardship.

Many are torn between the ignominy of capitulation and the creeping sense that time and economics are not on their side.

There are few easy answers for locked-out American Crystal Sugar Co. workers, who will vote Saturday on a contract they rejected emphatically last November. The terms haven’t changed, but in the eyes of some workers, the prospects for a better offer – particularly after the latest round of negotiations went nowhere – have dimmed.

“I don’t know that we have that much leverage anymore,” said Terry Johnson, a chemist at the Moorhead plant.

Johnson still doesn’t like many provisions of the offer, particularly those that would weaken seniority rights. But he’s also inclined to vote to accept the offer because he doesn’t see how it’s going to improve.

“I’ve been there 19 years. I don’t want to throw that all away,” he said.

His willingness to settle is far from universal. John Riskey, a local union president, said workers were split on whether to revisit a contract 90 percent of them voted down last time around.

“There’s members that didn’t want to vote and members that wanted to vote,” he said. “We’ll let the people decide.”

Rick Krull, a 32-year Crystal employee, said he’ll vote “no.” But he acknowledged that “everybody’s got their tipping point” where lost wages and other challenges sway their stance.

“Where that point is, is an individual thing,” he said. “I’m not at that point yet.”

That doesn’t mean he isn’t preparing for the worst: Like a number of other locked-out workers, he’s taking classes at Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Moorhead to develop new skills in case he can’t return to Crystal.

Kari Sorenson, a 15-year employee of the Moorhead plant, said she’s standing firm on her “no” vote because she doesn’t want the sacrifices of the lockout to have been in vain.

She said she’d rather move on than give in.

“I’ll find another job if I have to,” she said.

That sort of entrenchment isn’t uncommon in prolonged lockouts, said Greg Cant, dean of Concordia College’s Offutt School of Business and a labor relations expert. As the fight drags on and parties dig in, it becomes harder for either side to accept what feels like defeat.

“It’s hard to get your head around, ‘We really lost this,’ ” he said. “That’s a hard pill to swallow.”

He said the company could soften the blow by tweaking its final offer to make small concessions. But if the company feels like it’s operating from a position of strength – which he believes is the case for Crystal – “it’s not going to give a whole lot of stuff away.”

The company did not respond to a request for comment for this story. For months, Crystal managers have insisted their last offer was final.

They also say more than 7,000 people have applied for about 900 replacement jobs under the same terms the union rejected, a sign the offer is fair. And while the lockout of 1,300 union workers for the sugar processing co-op has cut into productivity – the union’s chief point of leverage – the company says those costs are falling by the day.

Cant said that long-term outlook doesn’t appear to favor the union.

“The company has all the bargaining chips at the moment,” he said. “The longer replacement workers are there, the better they get.”

He said the geography of Saturday’s union vote may be more important than the final tally. Even if a strong majority of workers across the union as a whole vote against the contract, clusters of workers at certain plants might vote to accept it, creating a rift.

Legally, the lockout has no expiration date. As long as both sides continue to bargain in good faith – which essentially means agreeing to meet and discuss proposals – it can go on indefinitely. Some lockouts go on for years.

But if neither side will budge, Cant said, the fight is effectively finished.

“If neither party moves, it’s over, and in fact, it’s been over for some time,” he said.

Public interest wanes, workers retire or move on, and the issue fades from view, he said.

For everyone, that is, except the people who won’t – or can’t – stop fighting.

“Years from now, if this hasn’t been resolved, you might drive by and see a few workers out there holding signs,” he said. “People might say, wasn’t this over years ago? Not for them. It’s never over.”

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