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Published December 03 2012

Forum editorial: Crystal union says ‘no’ again

Locked-out union workers at American Crystal Sugar said “no” to the company’s contract offer a fourth time on Saturday. Their message is clear: They’d rather stay locked out than accept the contract. They’d rather extend a 16-month lockout than take a contract that, to most observers of the regional labor market, looks pretty good.

Of course, union leaders will disagree vehemently with that assessment of the situation. But the course the union has chosen for its members (and a majority of members have embraced) all but guarantees the lockout will continue and, by any honest definition, the union has no effective options left.

The fourth vote was closer to approval than the third, second and first votes. But 55 percent of those voting (fewer voted because many workers have moved on) said “no.” The closer vote suggests a significant number of union workers are ready to return to work – and a majority wants, at least, to preserve the union. It appears neither of those things is going to happen soon, if at all.

The company’s contract offer calls for a 17 percent salary increase over five years. It asks workers to pay more for health insurance, which is what other workers in the private and public sectors are doing these days. It asks for changes in seniority and workplace training.

But at the heart of the dispute is the union’s euphemistic characterization of the contract as compromising workplace safety and product quality, and disregarding the value of union workers. Translation: Who should be in control?

Crystal management has drawn a line. Management manages the company. The union wants to either maintain or put in place anachronistic work rules that, in effect, allow union leaders to overrule management decisions regarding work hours, technology and innovation, employee discipline, training and seniority. Crystal management says “no.”

It’s also a ruse for the union to suggest the company has not been doing well, and that growers have lost money because non-union replacement workers have been on the job for the past 16 months, including two sugar beet harvests and processing campaigns. Company earnings and producer payments go up and down, not because of workers in the factories, but rather because of the quality of the crop, the market price of refined sugar and the ebb and flow of sugar sales to primary customers. By any objective measure, the company and growers are doing well.

The union strategy has not worked for its members. It’s time to either change strategy (a fifth vote?) or maintain the present course, in which case the union at Crystal Sugar will be history.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.

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