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Published August 29 2012

A hint of daylight in American Crystal lockout?

FARGO – Locked-out American Crystal Sugar union workers said Wednesday they’re gearing up for a big processing push when they get back to work, amid recent developments that hint the prospect of their return is looking up.

At a news conference Wednesday, union spokesman John Riskey said the union is drafting a “ready-to-work” plan to enable workers to hit the ground running during what looks to be another busy beet harvest.

“We are in the midst of getting ready to get our members ready for when this lockout ends,” he said.

Riskey offered no specifics on what those preparations entailed.

The bulk of his remarks, which highlighted the experience of the locked-out workers and the rise in production costs last season under replacement workers, were familiar arguments the union has employed throughout the nearly 13-month lockout.

But talk of making a smooth transition back to work, coupled with recent talks on a return-to-work agreement, raised the possibility that an end might be in sight.

The union and the company met Aug. 20 to discuss such an agreement, which would spell out when and how locked-out workers would return – and who would be eligible to do so.

The two sides traded proposals, but did not reach an agreement. In a statement issued last week, the company said hammering out a return-to-work agreement before the contract was ratified “seemed to be backwards.”

It said the two sides were far apart on terms, and that it “was not optimistic of reaching a resolution.”

Jeff Schweitzer, an American Crystal spokesman, said in an email Wednesday the company “has nothing new to report regarding our labor situation.”

But Riskey said he thought the company’s willingness to trade proposals signaled an opening for a resolution.

“We feel that there is movement there,” he said.

In June, the union rejected the company’s last contract offer with 63 percent of the vote. Crystal’s offer has remained unchanged since last October, and the company has said for months it has no intention of revising it.

No new vote is currently scheduled, but Riskey said a finished return-to-work deal could nudge some workers toward voting yes.

“Our feeling is part of the process is to get return-to-work done so our people know what there is to vote on,” he said. “They need to know that to decide.”

He said the union hopes to hash out the return-to-work agreement in the coming weeks, and schedule further negotiations. The two sides have not come to the bargaining table since June 9, when the company reiterated it would not change its offer.

Riskey declined to say whether the union and the company – or other parties like growers – have engaged in back-channel talks outside of formal bargaining sessions.

He said he’s confident the growers “want us back into the factories. I know that they want this to end.”

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