Primer: Crystal Sugar contract fight

Here's a quick look at the background of the nearly 11-month lockout of American Crystal Sugar union workers. A third vote on the company's contract is expected Saturday.

The company:

American Crystal Sugar Co. is the largest sugar beet processor in the country. It's a cooperative that's owned by the farmers who grow the beets. It accounts for 38 percent of the nation's sugar from beets and 15 percent of overall sugar production. It has plants in East Grand Forks, Moorhead, Crookston and Chaska, Minn.; Hillsboro and Drayton, N.D.; and Mason City, Iowa.

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The story:

The company and union workers are embroiled in a labor impasse for the first time in 30 years. Fearing a strike in the middle of processing season, the company locked out about 1,300 union workers on Aug. 1. The union has rejected the contract twice, the first time with a 96 percent "no" vote, the second time with 90 percent. A third vote is scheduled for Saturday. The plants have been operating with replacement workers.

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The dispute:

The company's original offer included a 17 percent wage increase over five years - which is now closer to 14 percent because of the contract's deadline - and increased pension, leave and vacation benefits. The union said after the last negotiating session on June 8 that its principal objections revolve around health care, drug testing, seniority and qualifications for promotions. The company put out a release the same day that said, "The parties remain far apart."

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Quotes:

"The vote is entirely union business. We wouldn't want to be seen as influencing it in any way," American Crystal spokesman Brian Ingulsrud says.

"They will vote with their hearts and minds. Whatever their decision will be is going to be in a democratic manner," union member and longtime American Crystal employee Mark Froemke says.

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What's next:

A company official says if the union votes Saturday in favor of the contract, the two sides would get together on a "back to work" agreement that would outline timing of the workers' return. Should the union reject the pact, the company would continue training replacement workers. The training is in advance of the next processing season, which is likely to begin in mid-August.

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