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By Christopher Bjorke, Forum Communications, Published October 20 2012

Crystal lockout: Union tries new ways to win sympathy

GRAND FORKS – More than 14 months into the American Crystal Sugar lockout, union workers are adding emotional heat to the frozen dispute.

“All because of you, I can’t really get a good education or even be able to play any sports,” a girl named Sandra reads in a letter to American Crystal’s directors in a video on YouTube and the site CrystalGreed.com. “I hope you know how selfish you are.”

The three-minute video features children of locked-out Crystal workers describing their family’s hardships during the labor dispute, and appealing to management to end it.

The children’s emotional indictment of the company is one of the latest efforts in a campaign to appeal for public sympathy toward the workers’ side and tarnish the

reputation of the grower-owned cooperative. Other instances include demonstrations at grocery stores, calling shoppers to boycott Crystal products and vigils by union members outside of growers’ homes.

The tactics may not do them much good, in part, because public opinion rarely makes a difference in labor disputes, according to labor experts. And American Crystal management say they believe public opinion is on their side.

Management locked out its 1,300 unionized workers in August 2011 after they rejected the contract offered them. Since then, both sides have said the public is on their side.

Support for both

The leader of area workers said the public sympathy is on the workers’ side, and the recent efforts, supported by the national AFL-CIO, are the next phase in showing injustice toward the workers.

“We are the underdogs. We’re going up against the big-dollar company,” said John Riskey, president of Local 167G of the Bakery Workers union representing employees at Crystal factories in East Grand Forks, Minn., Moorhead and Drayton, N.D. “It’s David versus Goliath.”

Crystal’s management has remained steadfast in its contract offer to workers, regardless of the union’s appeals to public sympathy.

Vice President for Administration Brian Ingulsrud said the company has made its position clear to the public from the beginning, and most people see that it was fair.

“I think we’ve been very open by having our offer and everything associated with it on our website,” he said. “We’ve received a significant number of supportive calls.”

Riskey said the consumers have backed their boycott by purchasing cane sugar over Crystal products and their message is being carried by union allies in markets across the country.

“We’re standing up for ourselves,” he said. “We’re standing up for workers everywhere.”

Asked if the company’s sales have been affected by the boycott, Ingulsrud answered simply, “No.”

Crystal ahead

The lockout is playing out before a public that is connected to both sides of the dispute and has divided sympathies, said Bruce Byars, a University of North Dakota business professor with a specialty in union-management relations, but management was more successful in explaining its position early.

“The management’s case has been put out a lot more than the union’s case” which comes to down to “We have to stay profitable and these are the things we have to do,” Byars said.

At the same, he said there is public confusion over the difference between a lock-out, in which workers are barred from returning to work – and a strike, in which workers leave their jobs. Many wrongly believe it is a strike, causing the workers to appear to be stubbornly refusing to return to work.

“The workers didn’t always garner sympathy,” Byars said.

The company’s grower-owned structure helps it, too, he said. Crystal’s shareholders are farmers living up and down the Red River Valley, a place where people are generally sympathetic toward farmers.

Workers have staged public events throughout the dispute, but their earlier efforts were not as effective as they had hoped, and now they are fighting from behind to shape public opinion.

“I think they should have started their public campaign a littler earlier,” Byars said.

Limited impact

Regardless of who is winning the fight for public support, it is not certain how much it will help resolve the dispute.

John Budd, director of the Center for Human Resources and Labor Studies at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, said it can require an extreme event for public opinion to matter. It took a widely criticized game-deciding call by a replacement referee on Monday Night Football to end the National Football League’s referee lockout.

“There was so much public uproar around that, the league finally had to do something,” Budd said.

Disputes in which the public has less of a stake are less likely to be pressured by outside opinion, he said.

While there is no consensus on who is right in the competition for public opinion, union workers also face the challenge of keeping the public interested in the dispute. After 14 months, that might be difficult for some people.

“A lot of them just don’t care how it ends, just that it ends,” Byars said.

Christopher Bjorke writes for the Grand Forks Herald