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Employees of JR Simplot Company take to the streets outside the company factory along Gateway Drive on Monday, Aug. 4, 2014, in protest of recent decreases in insurance, specifically medical, and an increase in number of hours they are expected to work consecutively in a day.   (Luke Franke/Grand Forks Herald)
Employees of JR Simplot Company take to the streets outside the company factory along Gateway Drive on Monday, Aug. 4, 2014, in protest of recent decreases in insurance, specifically medical, and an increase in number of hours they are expected to work consecutively in a day. (Luke Franke/Grand Forks Herald)

Grand Forks potato processing plant employees vote to strike after Simplot union rejects contract offer

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Fargo ND 101 5th Street North 58102

GRAND FORKS - After a day-long union meeting, employees of J.R. Simplot went on strike, picketing outside the potato processing plant in Grand Forks at about 6 p.m. Monday.

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The strike came shortly after an employee vote to reject the company’s contract offer, which included longer shifts and altered benefits, union officials said. The vote was 108 to 37.

The proposed 12-hour shifts — 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and vice versa — would “make it extremely hard for our employees to function,” said Bill Wedebrand, business agent with Teamsters Local 120, which is the union including Simplot workers.

Other contract changes include higher deductible costs for health insurance and switching the pension retirement plan to 401(k), Wedebrand said.

The union is open to negotiation with Simplot officials at any time, Wedebrand said.

He added that he informed Simplot corporate officials of the strike shortly after the vote. Company officials were not at the meeting before the vote Monday.

In an emailed statement, David Cuoio, Simplot spokesperson, called the contract changes “necessary.”

“All of the changes are in line with competitive best practices,” Cuoio said.

He added that similar changes have been implemented at other Simplot locations with “positive outcomes such as reduced turnover and better work/life balance.”

‘As long as it takes’

As some employees started to gather around the plant on Gateway Drive with their picket signs Monday night, others were inside making sure the plant was safely shut down before joining the strike, said Joe Dwyer, a Teamsters representative.

Private security officers blocked anyone, including Simplot employees, from parking in the Simplot parking lot. They also told employees picketing to stay off of Simplot property.

A security officer, who would not identify himself, said there is not normally that level of security at Simplot, but they were hired by the company temporarily. His truck had Pro Dog Security written on the side.

Some cars driving by honked at the picketers, who yelled back, thanking them for the support.

Dwyer said the employees will protest outside Simplot 24 hours a day until a contract agreement is reached.

“For as long as it takes, we’ll be here,” he said.

The Grand Forks Police Department was called to the plant shortly after 7 p.m.

No one was cited, said Sgt. Barb McLeod, but picketers were told that they cannot block traffic in the street or they could be cited for disorderly conduct.

Vote to strike

The vote to strike Monday came after an all-day meeting between employees and union officials at the Hilton Garden Inn in Grand Forks, Wedebrand said.

The contract negotiations have been going on “a long time,” he said.

Shortly before 6 p.m., many Simplot employees waited outside a conference room at the Hilton. They said they had just voted to go on strike.

When union officials came out of the conference room, they told the employees to drive to Simplot to start the picket line. All employees were instructed not to talk to the media.

Grand Forks Simplot workers also went on strike in June 1999, according to Herald archives. The 11-day strike ended with the union accepting a contract that included higher pay for all employees and more vacation time for some employees.

Simplot

J.R. Simplot Co., headquartered in Boise, Idaho, is a nationwide agribusiness operation in ranching, food processing, mining, retail and fertilizer production, according to its website.

 The Grand Forks plant processes potatoes for French fries, tater tots and hashbrowns.

According to Forbes Magazine, Simplot is worth $6 billion as of December 2013 and has about 10,000 employees total.

About 400 people work at the Grand Forks plant, according to AgWeek Magazine.

The company was started in 1929, according to its website. In the 1940s, it created the first commercially-viable frozen French fries. 

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