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In 5th vote, locked-out sugar workers approve contract offer

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Union workers
Locked-out union workers and their supporters pack up after picketing for two hours outside a Fargo, N.D., grocery store in a file photo from Oct. 15, 2012.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

Locked-out union employees at American Crystal Sugar will be going back to work after approving the company's contract offer on Saturday.

The deal was approved by 55 percent of members who voted; union workers rejected the same contract in four previous votes.

About 1,300 workers were locked out in August 2011.

The return to work will be a challenge, said union local president Gayln Olson.

"It's going to be a lot of hard work, a lot of transitioning," Olson said. "We've been away from the job for almost 21 months. When you've been away from the job for that long, it's going to take a little while to get back into it."

At least half the union members have retired or quit since the lockout began, said American Crystal Sugar Vice President Brian Ingulsrud.

The company will combine replacement workers with the returning union members, he said.

"It's going to be a pretty complex process to get them integrated back into the workforce," Ingulsrud said. "We've agreed that we'll make a good-faith effort to get them returned back into the workforce in about six weeks, and that sounds like a long time, but it is going to be a pretty complex process."

Union members will get their old jobs back. Union workers and replacements will use a bidding process to compete for open jobs.

American Crystal should be finished processing last year's sugar beet crop before the union workers return to five Red River Valley factories, Ingulsrud said.