American Crystal and locked-out workers to restart contract talks

American Crystal rally
Locked-out American Crystal union members gather for a rally Wednesday, June 6, 2012, in the Moorhead Center Mall parking lot across from American Crystal headquarters in Moorhead, Minn. The contract dispute has lingered for 10 months, since American Crystal last Aug. 1 locked out about 1,300 union workers at sugar beet processing plants in North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. The two sides have not met since February.
AP Photo/The Forum, David Samson

American Crystal Sugar and its locked out union workers meet again today in an effort to restart contract talks.

The company locked out 1,300 workers at five factories last August. This is the fourth time the two sides have met with a federal mediator to try to end the impasse.

When the lockout started 10 months ago, union members picketed around the clock at the Moorhead factory. Now on most days, a handful of picketers show up only for morning and afternoon shift change.

Many workers have taken new jobs to make ends meet, or are going to school to learn a new skill.

On a recent morning, Cary Bergene was one of four picketers outside the Moorhead factory. The 55-year-old Fargo resident worked at American Crystal for 29 years. Now he is taking classes in computer technology and looking for temporary work.

Bergene is getting by on unemployment, which is about 40 percent of what he was earning at American Crystal. In a couple of weeks, his unemployment benefits will run out.

"I don't know what we're going to do then. You can't live on nothing you know," Bergene said. "We're just hoping everything goes our way this time. Just hoping for the best. See what happens Friday."

Union workers
Locked out union workers Mitchell Larson of Glyndon, Minn., right, and Cary Bergene of Fargo hold picket signs outside the American Crystal Sugar Company factory in Moorhead on June 1, 2012.
MPR photo/Dan Gunderson

Most of the workers who were locked out from American Crystal's Minnesota plants will stop getting unemployment pay in the next month. Union officials say about 900 workers have received unemployment benefits. Workers at the company's North Dakota factories did not qualify for unemployment.

Some American Crystal workers retired or simply walked away from their job. At the Moorhead factory, 30 of about 250 union members retired or quit, said Moorhead Union local Vice President Ross Perrin.

"We had people that left the first week. Just on the basis of how they were treated," Perrin said. "After 30 or 40 years — then one day have the gate locked. They left, said they'll never go back."

More locked-out workers may leave American Crystal when their unemployment benefits run out this summer, Perrin said.

When the lockout started, American Crystal kept its factories running with workers from Strom Engineering, a Twin Cities company that specializes in providing replacement workers during labor disputes.

American Crystal Vice President Brian Ingulsrud said most of those workers have now been replaced. The company is hiring temporary local workers. Legally, the company can't hire permanent workers as long as the lockout continues.

About 700 replacement workers are on the job, Ingulsrud said, and the company expects to hire another 300.

Ingulsrud declined to say if the replacement labor costs were higher than the company projected before the lockout, but he said the expense of Strom replacement workers did cut into company profits this year.

"We're just hoping everything goes our way this time. Just hoping for the best.

"Those employees are more expensive than the local employees we started to hire in December," Ingulsrud said. "Over time, those costs have gone down as we've gotten more and more local replacement employees in place."

Warm winter temperatures also hurt the company's bottom line. If stored beets don't freeze over the winter, they lose sugar content as they decompose.

Farmers expect to get $59 per ton of sugar beets this year. That's down from a record payout of $73 dollars last year, but is the second-highest payment in company history.

Ingulsrud said American Crystal will bring no new offers to the bargaining table. He said the company's final contract offer still stands.

The contract dispute primarily focuses on health care costs and language about job security.

Union leaders say they will bring a counteroffer to the table. Perrin said he is convinced the lockout will end soon.

"It will be resolved. At some point it will have to be resolved," he said. "Whether people say we want to go back and vote to accept what they have; ultimately it's up the members when they want to go back."

The pressure on locked-out workers to choose will grow over the summer as they stop receiving unemployment benefits.

American Crystal officials and union representatives met with a federal mediator Aug. 25, and Oct. 24 of last year, and again Jan. 30. Union workers rejected American Crystal's contract offer July 31, 2011 and again on Nov. 1.

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