As American Crystal lockout drags on, frustration grows among union workers

Dale Olson
The labor dispute between American Crystal Sugar Co. and its locked-out union workers recently crossed the six-week mark. While the situation appears at an impasse with no new negotiations scheduled, union workers like Dale Olson of Moorhead continue to staff an ongoing informational picket outside the companyOs processing plant in north Moorhead. (Photographed on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011)
MPR Photo/Ann Arbor Miller

As the sun drops below the horizon, a small group of American Crystal Sugar workers hold a quiet vigil outside the five gates that surround the company's sprawling factory complex outside Moorhead.

Most passing drivers honk their cars' horns. One man yells, "Take the contract!" as he passes. But there's no shouting or chanting on the picket line — just tense observations from workers who fear their jobs, and lives, are on the line.

Although the five sugar beet factories in the Red River Valley are busy turning the fall harvest of beets into sugar, 1,300 workers who rejected a contract offer in August are now locked out. They can only watch as replacement workers hired by the company do the work — their work.

Frustrated and angry, the union members intensely monitor scanners to hear the substitutes talking on radios inside the factory. As the factory starts full-scale sugar production, union members gloat over any mistakes or problems. Many desperately want the replacement workers to fail, so they can go back to the only work they know.

"I'm too old to go back to school and get a degree," said Becki Jacobson, of Moorhead, a third-generation Crystal Sugar employee.

"This is my life; I'd rather stay here," she said. "But if they don't want me, I guess I have to go elsewhere. I'm sure I'm going to have to take a cut in pay where ever I go."

American Crystal Vice President Brian Ingulsrud said the company's final contract offer remains on the table for union workers to accept. The union has not made a counteroffer, and no new contract talks are planned.

The company's contract offer includes a 17 percent pay increase over five years. Part of the increase is a one-time $2,000 signing bonus. But workers would pay a larger share of health insurance costs. The sticking point for the union is contract language to give American Crystal more freedom to use subcontractors at its factories.

That language, union leaders say, threatens job security for union workers, many of whom have life-long connections to the company.

Jacobson, 48, began working at American Crystal after high school. Both of her parents, and her grandfather also worked at the Moorhead plant.

With 30 years on the job, she planned to someday retire from American Crystal. Now, she faces an uncertain future.

Though her friendships with non-union managers are now strained and perhaps broken beyond repair, Jacobson plans to hold out as long as it takes to win concessions from American Crystal.

About five locks away, her brother, Brad Knapper, paced outside another factory gate. Four security guards watched him.

Knapper comes to the plant almost every night for the 8 p.m. shift change. When a white van carrying replacement workers approaches the gate, he runs to it holding a sign that reads "No Lockout" on one side and "Nice pimpmobile" on the other.

The van he approached Monday swerved around him into the factory.

Knapper said he wants to keep the pressure on the replacement workers, "just [to] harass 'em a little bit, let 'em know they're not wanted in this community."

Knapper also videotapes the security guards at the gate whom American Crystal hired to keep locked out employees away.

When Knapper spoke to a reporter, two of the guards conducted a fake interview.

"See now he's smiling and laughing," Knapper said. "He blew me a kiss earlier, said (expletive) to me. So they're starting to get a little upset too."

Moorhead police said there have been no reported incidents at this factory during the lockout.

An American Crystal contractor provided the replacement workers and security guards. Company officials declined to comment on them, but union members said most of the newcomers are from other parts of the country.

Since the five factories started operations last week, there have been at least two fires at the plants. Union officials say that's a sign of inexperienced workers.

American Crystal officials, however, say fires are not uncommon at the factories because of the heat used in the sugar making process.

The company is pleased with the performance of the replacement workers, Ingulsrud said.

"I think you always expect some learning curve, but that being said, we're very pleased with where we're at right now," he said. "All five factories are slicing beets and where we would want them to be at this point."

Longtime American Crystal employees are angry that the company turned to others.

Knapper, 40, started working for American Crystal at 19. Like his sister, he planned to spend his entire working life at the factory. He believes the company rejected his loyalty.

"If they're gonna treat their employees like that, maybe it's time to move on," he said. "If something comes along that's the right price, gives me the right wage and benefits, I'll say goodbye to Crystal Sugar forever.

"I'll never buy another bag of Crystal sugar for the rest of my life."