American Crystal Sugar union workers reject contract offer

American Crystal Sugar factory
American Crystal Sugar Company factory in Moorhead.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News file

American Crystal Sugar Company workers have rejected a company contract offer that would have provided a 17 percent pay increase over four years by what union president John Riskey called an “overwhelming” margin.

He would not provide details about how many union members voted or vote totals.

The Moorhead-based cooperative said that it negotiated for 10 days with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers' International Union.

The company said in addition to the pay increase, the contract offered more vacation, increased pension and a $1,000 ratification bonus if the new contract was approved by July 31, when the current contract expires.

Riskey, the BCTGM union local president, said Wednesday that workers felt they deserved a bigger pay increase after helping the company weather the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They kept it running, kept getting the product out, helped keep the company profitable and they just feel like they just aren't getting ahead,” he said. “We have the inflation issue, too, with inflation going up where you know with the offer that the company has, it just isn't keeping up.”

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a sugar beet harvester in a field
A farmer harvest sugar beets in 2019 near Stephen, Minn.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News file

While the contract is unresolved, Riskey said a strike is not currently under consideration, and workers want contract talks to continue. In a letter to the company, the union asked for the current contract to be extended.

"The company has accepted the extension, so we're going to be working on getting dates scheduled to get back to the table and try and work out an agreement that's fair for our members and fair for the company," said Riskey.

In a statement, American Crystal said the new deadline for an agreement is Sept. 15, and contract talks will resume with a federal mediator at the table.

The company said it is disappointed “that a majority of the members did not approve the offer, but we remain hopeful that we will come to an agreement by September 15.”

In 2011, American Crystal Sugar Company locked out about 1,300 union employees at five sugar beet processing factories for nearly two years after they rejected the company’s contract offer.

American Crystal Sugar is the largest sugar beet processor in the U.S.

The factories process sugar beets grown by about 2,600 farmer-shareholders on 425,000 acres of land in the Red River Valley of northwestern Minnesota and eastern North Dakota.