Employees will be locked out on August 1 if negotiators for the American Crystal Sugar of Moorhead, Minn. and the union that represents workers fail to reach a deal.
The company and the union have been at odds over contract negotiations for months. The parties are stumbling over proposed language that would allow the company to replace union workers with subcontractors, said Mark Froemke, a representative of the AFL-CIO who is on leave from his job at American Crystal.
Froemke, who has worked at American Crystal since 1978, said he was shocked by the provision, which he described as union busting.
"Then the company would have the right to have the ability to say 'Hey, we're cutting you loose. You're out the door. Goodbye, adios,' " Froemke said. "We've never seen that kind of venom from the company."
American Crystal Sugar employs about 1,300 people at five sugar beet processing plants in the Red River Valley. In Minnesota, the company has operations in Moorhead, East Grand Forks and Crookston. Its plants in North Dakota are in Drayton and Hillsboro.
American Crystal Sugar workers are represented by the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union, which is part of the AFL-CIO. The company negotiated its last contract with the union in 2004.
But the sub-contractor provision is a major obstacle this round. The company's contract proposal also would limit the union's negotiating power. The proposal reads: "The Union hereby waives its right to bargain over any such Company decision to subcontract work."
To the union, those are fighting words.
"We're surely not going to give that kind of language where we can't even protect our workforce," Froemke said. "It's straight union busting. It comes to the fundamental issue of what of union is."
American Crystal officials declined to talk about specific contract items. The company has notified workers they will be locked out if they do not have a new contract by August.
Brian Ingulsrud, the company's vice president of administration, denied the threat of a lockout is an attempt to bust the union, but rather protection for the company as it prepares for fall harvest
Ingulsrud said company operations have changed in recent years and American Crystal is starting its factories in August instead of September.
"We felt that we are more vulnerable to the potential of a strike if we're not able to get this agreement done by the August 1st deadline," he said.
Some replacement workers have already been hired and are being trained at the companies five factories, Ingulsrud said. Potential replacement workers are now shadowing union workers to learn their jobs.
"We feel pretty good about the ability to be able to implement that contingency plan but we sure hope we don't need to," he said. "We have no interest in locking out employees out. It is only a contingency plan if we aren't able to reach an agreement. Our priority is to reach an agreement, and we think can do that."
The two sides also do not agree on wage and benefit provisions. Froemke said those issues can't be seriously discussed until the contract worker language is resolved.
American Crystal and union negotiators are meeting this afternoon with a federal mediator. Sessions are also scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.