20-month lockout over, sugar workers brace for return to work

American Crystal Sugar workers locked out
American Crystal Sugar Co. locked out 1,300 union workers at five processing plants - including this one in Moorhead, Minn. - and two storage facilities after union members rejected a contract offer. Monday, Aug. 1, 2011, was the first day of the lockout.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

Locked-out American Crystal Sugar union members are headed back to work after the union voted over the weekend to accept the company's contract offer.

Union members, who have been locked out at five factories in the Red River Valley since Aug. 1, 2011, expect a bumpy return to their old jobs.

Just enough union members changed their vote to ratify the same contract they had rejected four times. Employees last voted on it in December, when 55 percent voted to reject the offer.

The new contract means more money for workers, but they will pay more for health insurance and union officials say they will lose some job security.

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In the latest ballot, the union says 55 percent of workers who voted agreed to accept the company's contract offer.

Dennis Gerlach, a worker who changed his vote to yes, said: "It's money, it's family life, it's how do I start over again in another career or another job? I'm not ready to retire yet, but I'm not ready to start over."

Gerlach, 56, worked for 35 years at the Moorhead factory before the lockout. After the lockout he accepted another job for less money.

He said he is happy to be going back to work, but he will not have the same trust in American Crystal leadership. The company spent months planning to lock out employees, he said.

"I think they have to actually do more time and planning than that to build relations among everybody again," Gerlach said. "I really wonder if they're qualified and if they're going to do that. But we'll see."

American Crystal Sugar
Bags of Crystal Sugar on the shelves of a Fargo, N.D., grocery store on Oct. 15, 2012. Locked-out union members picketed outside the store in an effort to get public support for a boycott of American Crystal Sugar products.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

Another worker, Gayle Lund, 52, said she felt frustrated as she prepared to return to a job she had for 23 years before the lockout.

Lund voted no for the fifth time because the company refused to negotiate the contract.

But she will go back to work because she needs the health insurance, she said, adding that she expects to go back to a very different workplace.

"And with a lot of different people. People who have been doing my job," Lund said. "And that burns a little. I think it's going to be a big mess for a while."

Returning union workers will get their old jobs back, but they will be working alongside the employees who replaced them during the lockout. American Crystal says roughly half, or at least 650, of the union workers retired or quit during the lockout. Union members and replacement workers can apply for those open positions.

Lund fears that it will be a tense workplace and that union members will have a target on their backs.

"Our return-to-work agreement says absolutely no harassment will be tolerated," Lund said. "Now, I'm assuming they mean us harassing the replacement workers, but you know maybe somebody doesn't like me and decides, 'I'm going to get her out of here', and makes up some story and I'm gone. I don't know."

Wayne Jacobson
Wayne Jacobson, who has worked at American Crystal Sugar for more than 25 years, waves to a passing car outside of a company processing plant in Moorhead, Minn., in a file photo from Oct. 30, 2011.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

The union says that with the lockout over, replacement workers at Minnesota factories must join the union. Workers in North Dakota cannot be forced to join a union.

Union workers should be back on the job in about six weeks, said American Crystal Sugar Vice President Brian Ingulsrud.

Integrating the returning union workers and replacement workers will be a challenge, Ingulsrud said, and the transition will take time. The company will expect all of the workers to treat each other with respect, he added.

"I think the good thing is that we have a very good relationship with our current workforce, the replacement employees, and they're going to make up a very large percentage of our workforce going forward," he said. "My hope is that the culture that's been created with that group of employees will carry over going forward."

Last year's sugar beet harvest will be processed and the factories will close for the summer by the time union workers return, Ingulsrud said, so they will have a few months to integrate the workforce.

The company will hold employee meetings over the next two weeks to determine how many union members want to return to work.

The new contract will run until July 31, 2017, or just over four years, according to the company. Returning union employees will receive a total pay increase of 13 percent over the course of the contract.

American Crystal, which is based in Moorhead, is a cooperative owned by about 2,800 sugar beet growers. It is the nation's largest sugar beet processor, selling 90 percent of its production to industrial customers, including candy makers, bakeries and breakfast cereal makers.

The lockout began after 96 percent of the workers voting on the company's contract proposal rejected the offer on July 31, 2011.

In subsequent ballots, 90 percent of the voting workers turned down the proposal in November 2011, and 63 percent rejected it in June 2012.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.