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Tom Ricker, Published February 11 2013

Letter: Lockout strategy is callous

The union workers at American Crystal Sugar have now been locked out of their jobs for almost a year and a half. For more than a full calendar year, for two Christmas seasons, for more than 18 months, these men and women have struggled to pay their bills, put food on the table for their families, and have been tortured by the question: How could the company they gave their lives to just throw them away so callously? Thirteen hundred American workers have been deprived of their livelihoods. Rather than participating in genuine “good-faith” negotiations, the managers of American Crystal decided to use the economic hardship resulting from a lockout to force workers to capitulate to their one and final offer.

Lockouts are not strikes. Rather than walk off the job, workers are forced off the job by management as an extreme bargaining tactic. The members of the BCTGM union at American Crystal did not willingly give up their jobs; they were forced out. They had wanted to stay on the job, and work through the divisions between them and management. But they were thrown out, told, “No! It is our way or no way.”

On one level, their lockout strategy has been very successful. Their lockout has caused great economic hardship for these American workers. Workers who once were economically secure now struggle to provide the essentials of human life for themselves and for their families. They are having a hard time to do the simple things: provide for their families, pay their mortgage, the utilities, their costs of living.

Their lockout strategy has caused even more human suffering. In many communities, small businesses have suffered economic loss. And there are losses that go far beyond financial loss. Their lockout strategy has divided the community and torn apart families and neighbors. There used to be a cooperative partnership among American Crystal Sugar farmers, workers and management. Now there is distrust, frustration and anger. There can be no dollar assessment placed on these losses.

In a very fundamental way, the American Crystal Sugar lockout strategy places before us the two options that always exist. In any decision, either self-interest or the common good will prevail. Our country has lost the concept of the common good.

The common good means taking into account the well-being of all who are affected by a decision. American Crystal’s decision to use the lockout strategy has only considered the well-being of a few. They have only considered increasing profit for management and shareholders. To attain that profit, they have treated your workers as disposable objects rather than as fellow human beings and partners in the processing of sugar beets in the Red River Valley.

For generations, harvesting sugar beets and producing sugar for the marketplace was a team effort. It was a co-op, because it required cooperation. When times were tough, the workers shared in the sacrifices that needed to be made to keep the company afloat. Farmers, shareholders, management and workers worked together to get the job done. And when times were good, everyone is supposed to share in that success.

Our hope and prayer is that the management and shareholders of American Crystal Sugar will hear the desire of the locked-out workers to return to work, to heal the divisions caused by the lockout and to again become contributing partners for the benefit of American Crystal Sugar.

All of the working men and women who make up the North Dakota AFL-CIO call upon American Crystal to end this lockout. Return to the bargaining table, and meet your workers halfway. Your workers stand ready to again stand with you, shoulder-to-should, to hunker down and get the job done like we used to, and to find common ground and achieve the common good.

This story can still have a happy ending. If shareholders, management and workers can cooperate, everyone wins.

Ricker is president, North Dakota AFL-CIO.