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Dave Olson, Published April 11 2013

After several rejections, American Crystal workers reconsider contract offer

MOORHEAD – American Crystal Sugar Co. workers who have been locked out of their jobs for 20 months will vote for the fifth time Saturday on whether to accept the company’s contract offer.

It has been a long and difficult 20 months, Debra Kostrzewski said.

“It’s been a struggle; it really has. We’ve done food drives and things like that to help each other,” said Kostrzewski, who worked for American Crystal for more than 20 years and was a foreman at the company’s quality lab in East Grand Forks.

Kostrzewski said since the lockout began Aug. 1, 2011, some workers have lost homes, families have been divided and some have seen their health suffer.

“It was so unnecessary; it’s still unnecessary,” she said of the lockout.

Kostrzewski said if union members do go back on the job, it will be uncomfortable working alongside replacement workers.

“I have a bad feeling about people who crossed the lines,” she said. “I feel they really betrayed us.”

Union leaders say they don’t know how many members will vote Saturday, but they know several have retired or moved on to other jobs since about 1,300 union workers were locked out.

The lockout came after 96 percent of voting union members rejected a contract offer that at that point would have raised their pay by 17 percent over five years.

In a vote held three months later, 90 percent were still against the offer, which by that time no longer contained a $2,000 signing bonus.

By the time a third vote was held in June 2012, the “no” vote was 63 percent.

The union’s last vote on the contract was in December, when 55 percent voted to reject it.

Dwindling ranks

About 650 union employees have officially resigned or retired, and the company believes many others have moved on without notifying the company, an American Crystal spokesman said.

If the “yes” vote wins this time around, the company says union employees who return will be integrated into the existing workforce.

Because of the number of locked-out workers who have moved on, American Crystal believes that even if the union votes to approve a contract, the majority of replacement employees will be given employment opportunities in the company, said Brian Ingulsrud, vice president for administration with American Crystal.

“The company is very pleased with our replacement employees,” he said. “The work they are doing and results they are delivering is impressive.”

John Riskey, president of Local 167G of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union, wouldn’t speculate on how the vote will go this time around.

“We’re just going to present information to the members and let them decide, as we always have,” Riskey said.

The contract union members will accept or reject on Saturday is the same one they voted on previously, with minor adjustments made to language relating to how a return to work would go, Riskey said.

In the past, union leaders have said the contract would dismantle worker health coverage and compromise safety and product quality.

Price collapse

American Crystal says the hourly pay would increase by a total of 13 percent over the roughly four years of the contract being voted on, which would run until July 31, 2017.

Replacement workers are generally receiving the same pay and benefits that were offered to union workers, the company said.

Before the lockout, the average year-round employee’s annual pay and benefits, including overtime, was more than $75,000, Ingulsrud said.

He said the company’s current employees have an upbeat approach to their jobs and he hopes that will continue if the union accepts the contract.

“Our goal is to maintain the same positive work culture if the locked-out employees vote to come back to work for American Crystal,” Ingulsrud said.

The biggest challenge facing the company is the recent collapse of sugar prices, he said.

“These dramatically lower prices fell rapidly and will negatively impact the company’s financial performance to its shareholders,” Ingulsrud said.


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555