Christopher Bjorke, Forum Communications, Published June 26 2012
Crystal union leaders meeting to develop strategyGRAND FORKS – Locked-out Bakery Workers union members want to return to negotiations after they again rejected a contract offer from American Crystal Sugar Co. management, union officials say.
It is in the grower-owned cooperative’s economic interest to end the lockout to be ready for what is expected to be a record crop, according to John Riskey, president of Local 167G, which represents factories in East Grand Forks, Minn., Drayton, N.D., and Moorhead.
“We need to get Crystal Sugar profitable again,” he said Tuesday.
Union leaders this week are meeting with members at processing plants around the region to develop a strategy for what happens next, he said.
So far, the company has held firm with what it says is its final offer to workers.
“We’re focused on going forward with the workers we have,” said Brian Ingulsrud, company vice president for administration.
The workers Crystal has are temporary replacement workers it hired after the union rejected the contract July 31. The co-op has since locked out its unionized work force of 1,300 unionized.
Union members voted by 63 percent Saturday to reject for the third time the company’s contract offer.
Though management did not give any ground in their last meeting with the union, Riskey said members will keep pushing for an agreement through negotiations.
This year’s crop could produce 11 million tons of sugar beets compared to around 9 million tons last year, he said. The company has sacrificed profits, he said, by using replacement workers instead of union labor, and cooperative farmers’ payments of $59 million per ton is lower than what growers in similar cooperatives had received.
“Are the farmers really willing to gamble with inexperienced replacement workers?” Riskey said.
Union leaders and members are discussing possible new strategies to move negotiations forward, though Riskey declined to say what they were. He acknowledged that Crystal so far has been unwilling to bend.
“No doubt, we’ve tried many different avenues,” he said.
Ingulsrud said the company would rely on a decision by a federal mediator on whether they will return to negotiations with the union.
“We’ve always deferred to the mediator in terms of her sense of when is the best time to get together,” he said. “It really goes back to whether she sees there’s going to be any change on the part of the union.”
In the meantime, the company is satisfied with its replacement workers, Ingulsrud said.
“Our costs are dropping all the time as we hire more local temporary workers,” he said.
Crystal had hired out-of-state contractors and housed them at local hotels.
According to the union, 82 percent of its approximately 1,300 locked-out members voted Saturday.
Though some union members have retired and others have had to find work elsewhere, Riskey said the turnout Saturday showed the union has stayed strong.
Union members will be able to return to their jobs if the lockout is resolved, regardless of how long it lasts, according to Marlin Osthus, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Minneapolis. Temporary workers will also be considered temporary as long as it continues.
“Even if it goes for years,” Osthus said.
Riskey said he expects the dispute to end sooner than that.
“We’ll get an end to this, no doubt,” he said. “A lot of work needs to be done.”
Christopher Bjorke writes for the Grand Forks Herald