Union seeks to resume talks with American Crystal

American Crystal Sugar workers locked out
American Crystal Sugar Co. locked out 1,300 union workers at five processing plants - including this one in Moorhead, Minn. - and two storage facilities after union members rejected a final contract offer in late July.
MPR Photo/Ann Arbor Miller

For the second time since American Crystal Sugar Co. locked out 1,300 workers in early August, the two sides may soon meet with a federal mediator.

Union leaders say they have new proposals to offer company officials and have requested a negotiating session. Experts say as the stalemate drags on, the stakes get higher for both sides.

Aaron Sojourner, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management's Center for Human Resources & Labor Studies, said fewer than 2 percent of contract negotiations result in any kind of work stoppage.

"The vast majority of those are strikes, not lockouts, so lockouts are very rare," he said.

An official with the Minnesota AFL-CIO couldn't recall any lockouts in recent history.

"Once it gets to a strike or a lockout, you're basically burning money."

Sojourner said the lockout at American Crystal reflects the more aggressive approach companies are taking toward unions. In many industries that happened 10 or 20 years ago. In the case of American Crystal, he said government policies that artificially support sugar prices insulated the company and the union workers from economic realities.

Sojourner said a general weakening of union power over several decades, and the current economic downturn have emboldened companies to challenge historically strong unions — even when it costs them money up front.

"Once it gets to a strike or a lockout, you're basically burning money," Sojourner said.

American Crystal Sugar undoubtedly has higher labor costs and lower productivity using replacement workers, he said. Even if the company wins concessions from the union, a protracted dispute carries long-term financial risks.

"They have to go back and work with these people eventually," he said. "The company might get the terms it wants, but it might alienate the employees so completely that productivity and profitability suffers. That's the risk for them."

Company officials say their contract offer to workers is designed to prepare for the prospect of a less-profitable future, and that's why they need labor concessions.

Replacement workers
A van containing replacement workers enters an American Crystal Sugar Co. processing plant in north Moorhead on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011. The company has contracted with Minnetonka, Minn.-based Strom Engineering to provide replacement workers.
MPR Photo/Ann Arbor Miller

Union workers contend American Crystal simply wants to break the union. And it's not a time when unions are speaking from a position of strength.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations School, studies the tactics companies use to fight unions. She said a few recent strikes show the willingness of companies to replace even highly skilled workers.

"Employers will import doctors and nurses to break a hospital strike — and they have," she said. "If they're willing to do that, then I don't know who's hard to replace."

Bronfenbrenner said it's clear corporate and political winds are blowing against unions. But she said unions also share some of the blame for their weakened state because they weren't prepared for aggressive company tactics.

"Part of the reason we don't have higher union density has nothing to do with labor law, it has to do with the fact unions forgot how to organize and had to relearn," she said.

Union leaders expressed surprise at the hard line American Crystal took this year after 30 years of relatively smooth relations.

Bronfenbrenner said that's not unusual. She said in many cases unions have been caught off guard when companies pushed back hard and demanded concessions. She said many of those unions are still playing catchup years later.