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Tu-Uyen Tran, Forum Communications, Published August 18 2012

Crystal workers rally, hope growers will join them

EAT GRAND FORKS, Minn. – About 200 showed up at a meeting here Saturday held by locked-out American Crystal Sugar Co. workers, though the person they really wanted to see wasn’t there.

The Bakery Workers union had invited Crystal CEO Dave Berg, other executives and sugar-beet growers. Crystal had earlier declined the invitation, but union leaders said some growers were in the audience.

Just in case, the workers left a seat for Berg, an ornate throne-like chair.

Former North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Sarah Vogel was there to be “moderator,” though there were only union and union-friendly speakers.

It’s been more than a year since Moorhead-based Crystal locked out the workers after they voted against management’s proposed contract.

John Riskey, president of Local 167G, said he had hoped some growers would speak to his members, but he thinks they didn’t want to get into a conflict with Crystal.

Asked how long the union would continue opposing the contract given management’s expressed disinterest in budging, Riskey said, “As long as it has to. It’s gotta come from them.”

By “them” he included Crystal’s grower-shareholders.

Asked if he felt there were more growers on the union’s side now, Riskey weighed his words. “A lot more from where we started out.”

The union maintains that Crystal and its shareholders are suffering because experienced union workers aren’t on the job. Management has brought in temporary replacement workers.

Steve Bertelli, the lead negotiator, furnished charts that showed Crystal payments to shareholders are estimated to drop even as payments go up for shareholders of Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative, which has a sugar-beet factory in Wahpeton, N.D.

The union ended its meeting by having members compile questions to send to Berg. One question: “Why do some farmers have a say and the rest are told to keep their mouths shut?”

Tu-Uyen Tran writes for the Grand Forks Herald