National union boycott against Crystal Sugar

Crystal Sugar
A bag of Crystal Sugar for sale at the Asian and American Market in Fargo, N.D. on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012. The AFL-CIO is calling for a boycott of American Crystal Sugar products as the company and its locked-out union workers continue their contract dispute.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

The AFL-CIO will kick off a nationwide boycott of American Crystal Sugar on Monday in a bid to return 1,300 union workers to their jobs at five sugar beet processing plants.

American Crystal has hired long-term replacement workers at its five operations in the Red River Valley, workers who are busy during the sugar beet harvest now underway. The company also has shipping facilities in Chaska, Minn., and Mason City, Iowa.

AFL-CIO officials say the boycott is designed to force the company to settle a contract dispute with the workers, whom the company locked out last August. AFL- CIO union members will set up informational pickets at grocery stores across the country to ask consumers not to buy American Crystal products. Experts say the strategy is unlikely to affect the company.

The union hopes to generate a lot of public attention and sympathy for locked-out workers, and put public pressure on American Crystal Sugar, AFL-CIO campaign coordinator Ron Baker said.

"There'll be action at stores that sell it, asking the public to assist us in bringing American Crystal Sugar to some reality as to what constitutes good and fair labor relations," he said. "So we'll be using various means, both social media and person to person at the grocery store."

The boycott will initially target grocery stores that sell sugar with the American Crystal Sugar label, Baker said.

American Crystal Vice President Brian Ingulsrud declined to say if the company is concerned about the boycott. But he said its operations won't change.

Biking past the processing plant
A lone biker passes by Amercian Crystal Sugar Co.'s processing plant in north Moorhead on Wednesday, July 18, 2012. The contract dispute between the company and roughly 1,300 union workers at plants in Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa hit the one-year mark on Aug. 1.
Ann Arbor Miller/Ann Arbor Miller

"A very small percentage of our sugar is sold under the American Crystal label, retail," Ingulsrud said. "Our focus on what we can control is to just ensure that we're producing high quality sugar for our customers. And that's just exactly what we're doing."

American Crystal doesn't provide specific sales information, but filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission show about 90 percent of the sugar American Crystal produces is sold to industrial users like candy or soft drink companies.

It's a challenge to boycott a company that produces a commodity like sugar, said Daniel Diermeier, a professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

"Targeting commodities is very difficult. What you have to do then is you typically go to somebody else in the value chain," said Diermeier, who has studied how boycotts work. "In this particular case it might be a customer. Maybe like a well known consumer company that is a customer of this company. And then you target them, and going after a commodity producer is typically not very successful."

Diermeier said the most successful boycotts are focused on issues like worker safety or health risk for consumers.

"I think the number one factor that plays a role in that is outrage," he said. "So you need to have a case where people get angry because of a violation of some norm or principal that they really hold dear."

American Crystal Sugar workers are represented by the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union, which is part of the AFL-CIO. The company negotiated its last contract with the union in 2004.

The dispute between American Crystal Sugar and locked out union workers is about protecting worker seniority, and health care benefits.

But Baker, the AFL-CIO organizer, said the union pitch to enlist consumers in the boycott will be a story about a successful company turning its back on loyal workers.

"We explain the story, we talk about the impacts to families and their communities," he said. "I think people connect with that on a level across the country."

Baker said the boycott will focus on about 20 states where American Crystal Sugar is most commonly found on store shelves. He said the union has identified other companies that buy bulk sugar from American Crystal, but as yet has no plans to expand the boycott beyond the Crystal Sugar label.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.