Union workers reject American Crystal Sugar contract

Union worker Donnie Flemmer
Union worker Donnie Flemmer of Fargo, N.D., walks past an open tent door on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011, during an informational demonstration outside the American Crystal Sugar Co. processing plant in north Moorhead, Minn. The phrase "Here for as long as it takes!!!" is written on the outside of the tent. Union workers, who have been locked out for three months, voted Tuesday on the latest contract proposal from the sugar beet refiner.
MPR Photo/Ann Arbor Miller

Locked out union workers at American Crystal Sugar Company Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected a second contract offer.

The union said 90 percent of the workers who voted turned down the latest contract offer from American Crystal, which they said did not address their concerns about job security and rising health insurance costs. The vote turnout was 92 percent.

"Today our members sent a loud and clear message to American Crystal Executives," said BCTGM Local 167G President John Riskey. "We want to work, but we will not accept a contract that puts our jobs and the entire community at risk."

With 92 percent of the union workers voting, the result should signal American Crystal executives to return to the bargaining table as soon as possible. Riskey said.

"If company executives are serious about getting us back to work, they should return to the negotiating table immediately with real compromises, not just repackaged versions of a contract that has now been rejected twice," Riskey added. "It's time for a contract that benefits workers, the company, growers, and the community.

American Crystal offered workers a contract after two days of negotiations last week failed to end the impasse. Workers say the offer is essentially the same as the contract they rejected in July.

The vote means workers at five factories in the Red River Valley and warehouses in Chaska and Mason City, Iowa remain locked out. No new negotiations are scheduled.

Moorhead resident Carl Felix voted no.

"It's a no-win for anybody. It hurts the union. It hurts the farmers and the company as a whole," Felix said. "It's just a sad thing that it's come to this after all the years we've worked together and stood shoulder-to-shoulder."

Felix said the contract would weaken seniority and take away protections for union jobs. He sees that as a company attempt to bust the union.

"Well, it certainly would cripple the union, absolutely. And I believe that's what they're after. We have to make sure that doesn't happen," Felix said. "Ultimately you have to go with what you believe in and that's what I believe so I'm willing to stay for the long haul."

Felix said he doesn't know how long the lockout will continue, but he's preparing for a long dispute.

Union workers remain hopeful they will gain concessions from the company. They want language about contract workers and seniority removed from the contract. They believe the contract as written would allow American Crystal to replace union workers with seasonal contract workers.

Another point of negotiation involved health insurance.

In its latest offer, American Crystal would delay for a year the switch to a new health insurance plan that would be more expensive for workers. The workers said they want a better deal. The company offered a 13 percent pay increase over five years.

Union member Brad Knapper, 40, of Moorhead started working at American Crystal when he was 19. He voted no to this contract. Now he doesn't know what will happen next.

Knapper believes the unions' best hope is that American Crystal shareholders, the farmers who grow the sugar beets, will pressure company management to settle.

"Obviously corporate has no desire to move. Hopefully the farmers will learn how much this is costing them and they'll stand up and say enough is enough."

So far, most sugar beet growers have declined comment publicly on the labor dispute.

The farmers will receive their first payment for this year's crop in mid-November. That payment might be the first indicator of how much the labor dispute is costing the company.

American Crystal Vice President Brian Ingulsrud said the company won't talk about the costs of the lockout.

Disappointed by the union's vote, Ingulsrud said the two sides aren't likely to talk again until the union proposes its own contract.

"You can't continue to negotiate with yourself. And I think that's what has happened up to this point. We were the ones willing to make the moves," Ingulsrud said. "They've told the public and the media that they've made some significant changes in their stance. And we don't really feel that they have."

American Crystal's five factories are running well with replacement workers, and are processing sugar beets at a nearly normal rate, Ingulsrud said.