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Wendy Reuer, Published June 23 2012

Union workers reject American Crystal Sugar's 'final offer' again

FARGO – Locked-out American Crystal Sugar workers rejected the company’s offer for the third time in the past 11 months on Saturday.

Of the 82 percent of union members who voted, 63 percent voted to reject the contract, a significant drop in “no” votes compared to the two previous votes.

John Riskey, president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, Local 176, said the vote means the ball is once again in American Crystal’s court.

“If the company is interested in ending the lockout, they’ll come to the table for real negotiations,” Riskey said Saturday evening. “It takes two to compromise. The union has compromised consistently to curb management’s concerns.”

Fearing a strike in the middle of processing season, the company locked out about 1,300 union workers on Aug. 1. The union rejected the contract twice, the first time with a 96 percent “no” vote, the second time with 90 percent.

American Crystal representatives have said the contract is their “final offer.”

According to union leaders, the contract was rejected because it would “dismantle union workers’ health coverage,” and it compromises safety and product quality with a disregard for the value of union workers.

Union leaders also said the contract would “drastically diminish workers’ protection from unjust disciplinary measures and suppress workers’ voice on the job.”

While Minnesota union employees have been allowed to collect unemployment, North Dakota residents were denied the benefit.

“We know some workers have accepted positions with other employers and are unlikely to return,” Riskey said.

He attributed the turnout of Saturday’s vote to the difficult times union workers have had during the lockout.

“We did hold the vote on a Saturday to get as many people here as we can. It really shows there are people who are going through tough times. I think it’s tough for them to get into the towns and the halls to vote,” he said.

Crystal Sugar is the largest sugar beet processor in the country. It’s a cooperative that’s owned by the farmers who grow the beets. It accounts for 38 percent of the nation’s sugar from beets and 15 percent of overall sugar production. It has plants in Minnesota in East Grand Forks, Moorhead, Crookston and Chaska; North Dakota plants in Hillsboro and Drayton, and one in Mason City, Iowa.

The plants have been operating with replacement workers since the lockout began.

A Crystal Sugar official said that if the union rejected the contract on Saturday, the company would continue training replacement workers. The training is in advance of the next processing season, which is likely to begin in mid-August.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530