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Christopher Bjorke, Forum Communications, Published November 30 2012

Union's vote today could end American Crystal lockout

MOORHEAD - Locked-out American Crystal Sugar workers have another chance to say "yes" or "no" to a contract Saturday but they are again facing a choice they rejected more than a year ago.

A yes vote means a contract that is mostly unchanged from what they have already rejected and that could lessen their power as a union.

A no vote means a continuation of the 16-month lockout and its financial hardships.

“They’re in a real tough position,” said Bruce Byars, an associate professor in UND’s College of Business and Public Administration.

The Bakery Workers union members plan to vote today for the fourth time on the contract they rejected in July 2011 and in two later votes. Results of the vote - which will run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Fargo-Moorhead - are expected to be disclosed this evening, a union official said Friday.

There has been little changed in the two sides of the stalemate since the last vote.

Byars said the company’s contract proposal “effectively ends the union’s security.” But with a second sugar beet harvest now complete and no indication that management would change its position, the union lacks new leverage to apply to lockout.

“If there’s a no vote, we’re pretty much going to stay where we’re at,” he said. “At this point, American Crystal Sugar would seem to have no reason to end the lockout.”

Peter Rachleff, a history professor and labor researcher at Macalester College in St. Paul, said the management’s contract was asking the workers to give management more power over workers’ job security without checks on how they could use it.

“There is no employment security in the new contract,” he said. “Would you hand management a loaded gun and trust them not to use it?”

John Riskey, head of Local 167G representing employees at Crystal factories in East Grand Forks, Moorhead and Drayton, N.D., said workers would be voting on the contract as well as a draft return-to-work agreement if the contract is accepted.

Riskey did not want to discuss the implications of the new vote or negotiations leading up to it, saying he just wanted voters to evaluate the offer themselves.

“All we can do is explain what we have to the best of our ability and let them decide from there,” he said.

The union had about 1,300 members when the lockout began. Riskey said he did not know how many would vote this time. When workers voted in June, union leaders said 82 percent of members participated.

“It depends on how many members show up,” Riskey said, noting that the union had lost members to retirement and other employment.

The percentage of union members rejecting Crystal's offer has been shrinking. They've voted three times. Ninety-six percent rejected it in July 2011. Three months later, it was 90 percent against. After waiting about eight months before holding another vote, 63 percent of union voters were opposed to the deal in the most recent vote in June.

In advance of the vote, the union has been emphasizing the grower-owned cooperative’s financial performance since the lockout began. A statement the union distributed this week focused on a 30 percent decrease in net proceeds disclosed in Crystal’s latest financial statement and a $14 per ton decrease in payments to growers.

The union also ran ads in Friday’s Herald and Forum newspapers with statistics unfavorable to the company.

“Shareholders: This is fiscally irresponsible. End the lockout,” the ad said.

Crystal Vice President for Administration Brian Ingulsrud said the company had record profits in 2011 and though recent profits were lower, “Last year was still a very good year for us.”

Ingulsrud said the company’s expenses have been higher because it is still paying expenses for out-of-state replacement workers who make up 25 percent of their workforce now.

Byars said in light of American Crystal’s apparent willingness to continue the lockout, the union workers had few options other than to emphasize the company’s financial performance in hope that pressure from grower-owners or the public would sway management.

“They’re already locked out so they can’t withhold labor,” he said. “They’ve tried just about everything they can do.”

With financial concerns mounting on workers they are more likely to take permanent jobs or otherwise leave the union, threatening its membership.

“Usually after about a year it kind of puts workers in a position where they’re no longer secure to the union,” Byars said. “It depends on, financially, how long they can sustain it.”

Rachleff said the union needed stronger financial support from other unions, such as the AFL-CIO, which is supporting a boycott of American Crystal products.

“It’s more than just putting out a press release,” he said.

Allan Cull, who is locked out from the Drayton factory and is also a former shareholder, said he saw no reason to vote for the contract.

“I voted no three times already, and with no changes again why would I vote yes the fourth time?” he wrote in an email. “You would think (management) would start to negotiate. At some point the farmers will have to wake up a put a stop to this. But it may be too late already as they have lost so many good people.”

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Christopher Bjorke writes for the Grand Forks Herald