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Ryan Bakken and Marino Eccher, Forum Communications, Published July 28 2012

On anniversary of sugar lockout, workers have little to celebrate

The one-year anniversary of the American Crystal Sugar lockout is Wednesday. Unlike most anniversaries, it won’t be celebrated.

But it will be noted, often with an addendum of something along the lines of, “I never dreamed it would last this long.”

The lockout has sidelined 1,300 workers at the five plants in the Red River Valley. The company owners/growers and executives have remained steadfast with their “final offer” of a year ago, relying instead on replacement workers.

From Drayton, N.D., the smallest and most northern community affected, to Moorhead, the biggest and most southern plant site, the Red River Valley has been jarred by the stalemate. Each side has taken a financial hit, with lost wages on one side and reduced payments on the 2011 crop on the other.

However, the impact on each of the five factory locales extends beyond wallets. Friendships are frayed, if not unraveled.

Drayton: On pins and needles

Todd Gozdal calls himself “a pawn in this chess game” of the stalemate.

If so, he’s both a black pawn and a white pawn. That’s because Gozdal is in the rare and sometimes awkward position of being an ACS shareholder who rents out his beet acres and a factory employee who is locked out.

That puts him on both sides of the dispute. He’s tiptoed through that minefield with a strategy of silence and neutrality. That’s especially important, he said, in a town of 800 people, where the “everybody knows everybody” cliche is close to the truth.

“I don’t want to step on any toes nor burn any bridges,” he said. “I’m careful what I do and what I say.

“There’s nothing I can do on either side, so it’s best to keep out of it.”

His harshest criticism is that each side has used words that have been “disheartening” to the community.

Gozdal and his wife, Meredith, haven’t crossed the picket line, but a sister-in-law has. “To each their own,” he said.

The lockout was two months old when Gozdal and co-worker Jason Thomson found other work by starting PiP Repair, an auto-repair shop in Drayton.

“We have worked on the vehicles of management, replacement workers, locked-out workers and growers,” Gozdal said. “Our shop is neutral ground.”

Thomson had worked at the Drayton plant since 1986, “basically the only job I had since I graduated from high school,” he said.

“My dad (Ray) retired from there, and I had every intention of retiring from there, too.”

Thomson, who said he has opposed the management proposal all three times it has gone to a vote, is unsure if he’ll return if the lockout ends. Business has been good after the town went two years without a car mechanic.

Most locked-out Drayton plant workers have had similar success in finding jobs. A common local estimate is that 90 percent of the locked-out workers have either retired or found new employment, but only a small percentage of the jobs have matched the pay scale of ACS. And, not all work is full-time.

The new canola plant in Hallock, Minn., an uptick in contracts for Motor Coach Industries in Pembina, N.D., and growing Lean Technologies in Grafton, N.D., have produced skilled jobs. The start of harvest has provided more work.

The refinancing of homes has been far less than anticipated, said Pete Anderson, president of Koda Bank. There are not more yards bearing for-sale signs than normal.

So, money isn’t the biggest problem. Relationships are.

“Even if they go back to work today, in my opinion, some relationships are so strained that they’ll never get put back together,” Anderson said.

Mayor Ardis Olson agrees. “Our town has been affected the most by what this has done to morale, friendships and families,” she said. “Some people have gone back to work at American Crystal and given up relationships.”

Hillsboro: Businesses suffer

Yes, Hillsboro business owners say, sales are down considerably. But most only will talk off the record. They decline attributed comment in fear that their words might upset someone and cost them even more sales. Better safe than sorry.

The drop in sales, one owner confides, is not just because of lost wages. It also happens because some potential customers seldom go to public places for fear they will run into members of the other side.

Randy Habeck, a pharmacist who heads the Hillsboro Business Association, broke his no-comment stance last week.

“We can definitely tell the difference,” he said. “Union workers are choosing not to fill all of their medications. Their benefits were so good that their co-pay was $8 on everything.

“Now there’s sticker shock. I understand that.”

Two restaurants – The Paddlewheel and Pizza Ranch – have closed since last fall. But, Habeck said, the lockout wasn’t a factor in either closing.

“However, in our current situation, it’s probably not the right environment to take over a new business,” he said. “I’m guessing some potential buyers may have gotten scared off.”

Neutrality isn’t everywhere in the Traill County seat of 1,600 people. Country Hearth, assistant manager Stephen Johnson said, “is a union restaurant.” The restaurant just off Interstate 29 also has stopped buying sugar made by American Crystal.

The lockout initially cost Country Hearth the majority of its early morning customers. And the restaurant stopped their lunchtime deliveries to the plant because “we refuse to cross the picket line,” the 24-year-old Johnson said.

“Maybe those decisions have hurt our business, but those are our beliefs.”

EGF: Benefits fade

Kevin Barbeau sits alone in a metal lawn chair on the edge of the East Grand Forks, Minn., plant property. Being the lone picketer on a weekday morning is OK, though, because he has a lot to think about.

His unemployment benefits will run out in about a month. When that expires, his “income” will be $100 a week in assistance from the national union as long as he pickets eight hours a week.

That amount of money won’t stretch far because the child support payment for his three sons exceeds $300 per week, to say nothing of monthly mortgage and truck payments.

He lives in Reynolds, N.D., but has received the unemployment benefits because he works in Minnesota. The benefit varies widely in amount, but averages about half of a regular paycheck for Minnesota workers.

Without the safety net of unemployment benefits, most of the workers at the Drayton and Hillsboro factories have found other work. However, Barbeau frets that “most work places won’t want much to do with us because they think we will all be going back to American Crystal when it’s settled.”

Crookston: Two hopes

Starting about 8:30 a.m. each day, locked-out workers start filing into Local Union 267G headquarters at the downtown corner of Broadway and Robert in Crookston, Minn.

The ground floor makeshift office in the Eagles building most recently was a consignment shop. It’s a Spartan environment, with mostly bare Sheetrock walls, the exceptions being an American flag and a framed picture of the crucifixion. An old-style coffeemaker and homemade baked goods greet visitors.

They come to see if there’s any news; almost always there isn’t. And, they come for the group therapy.

“There’s something to say about the old adage that misery loves company,” Gene Thompson said.

Thompson, who retired after the lockout but still volunteers at the office, is the person most likely to crack a joke. About the use of replacement workers, his comparison is: “It’s like me going to the library and getting a book on brain surgery. Who wants to be my first patient?”

Fatigue, disappointment and disbelief are in the eyes and voices of the other regulars as talks, much less agreement, have been scarce. But, they say, there are two reasons for hope that management will eventually move.

One hope involves a bumper crop in the fields, with the potential of matching the record production of two years ago. Growers, they speculate, will want to capitalize on that potential by having veterans in the plant.

“How can they afford to have that big crop handled by an inexperienced crew?” said Scott Aubol, a 54-year-old who started work there on his 18th birthday.

Their other hope is the company position will move if the AFL-CIO applies national pressure, such as with product boycotts.

Moorhead: Size mutes confrontations

In Moorhead, the bigger city has muted many of the bitter face-to-face interactions between union workers and company managers and growers that have defined the lockout elsewhere.

Also, Minnesota’s labor laws, which allow unemployment benefits for locked-out workers, have blunted the impact of being without a job for a year.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not hurting.

“It’s really been devastating,” said the Rev. Matthew Valan, a Moorhead pastor who has counseled locked-out workers. “I see it in my offices as the locked-out employees come in and talk about broken dreams and futures.”

A number of workers have taken other jobs or sought retraining, including classes at Minnesota State Community and Technical College to acquire skills and certifications.

Kari Sorenson, a 15-year plant employee who took computer skills classes, said earlier this summer that many would rather walk away than take an offer they see as unfair.

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

Others feel differently. Terry Johnson, a 19-year plant employee, said he was willing to take the offer because he thinks the union is running out of leverage.

Valan, who comes from a farm family with ties to the cooperative, wrote a letter in The Forum urging growers to step forward and find a solution. In the early days, he said, workers came to visit him almost daily. Lately, it’s been less often.

“Either people have gone to work or moved on, or they’ve just given up,” Valan said.

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