A year into sugar lockout, common ground elusive

MOORHEAD - After a yearlong standoff, American Crystal Sugar Co. and its locked-out union workers both say there's little more they can give to facilitate the dispute's end.

Moorhead factory entrance
American Crystal Sugar Co.'s factory entrance is seen Friday in Moorhead. Dave Wallis / The Forum

MOORHEAD - After a yearlong standoff, American Crystal Sugar Co. and its locked-out union workers both say there's little more they can give to facilitate the dispute's end.

Little has changed in the sticking points as the lockout has dragged on, though it's difficult to say precisely where the battle lines have been drawn because neither side wanted to discuss the details of the divide.

The most recent talks in early June, which yielded no progress, focused on issues of seniority and promotion. The company wants more flexibility to promote as it sees fit, while the union is trying to preserve a system that gives the edge to longer-tenured workers.

Health care costs have been the other major point of contention, though the sides may have moved closer together on that front. Under the old contract, union members paid no premiums and had out-of-pocket maximums of $1,950 per family.

The company wants to move them to a plan where workers pay 17 percent of the premiums - the same plan it says it offers to nonunion workers, including managers. Maximum out-of-pocket costs would more than double.


The company says the pay increases it's offering - 17 percent over five years - would more than make up for the increased costs. Union officials say they're willing to accept most of the changes but want greater cost certainty.

John Riskey, a union spokesman, said the union doesn't want to delve too deeply into its most recent proposals or strategy.

"We don't really want to get into the details," he said.

The company, meanwhile, said the divisions are moot because the offer they have on the table is final and won't change.

Brian Ingulsrud, Crystal's vice president for administration, said haggling over the specific issues is no longer productive because "at the end of the day, all of the issues that we have in that final offer are important to us."

He said the company continues to hire local replacement workers, though he wouldn't say how many more it has hired since the company reported in late May that it had made about 700 new hires.

All of those hires are technically temporary - no matter how long the lockout goes on, union employees have the right to return to work if they accept Crystal's offer.

The union has voted down the offer three times. In the first two votes, more than 90 percent of workers voted against the offer. In the third vote, held June 23, 63 percent opposed it.


Ingulsrud said the company didn't take that as a sign the union is going to take the deal anytime soon.

"At the end of the day, it didn't pass," he said.

In a letter sent to locked-out employees July 9, he wrote: "It now appears very clear that the union will never support accepting the Company's final offer."

The letter invited locked-out employees to apply for replacement jobs, but warned: "when we complete our hiring needs, the only choice left will be for you to remain a locked out employee while this labor dispute continues."

Ingulsrud said some locked-out employees took replacement jobs after the letter was sent, but he declined to say how many.

"I think that it did prompt some employees to look at where they're at personally," he said.

Riskey, meanwhile, said a 63 percent "no" vote after a long, grueling lockout still signals strong resolve.

"I believe that's a really resounding vote yet," he said.


He acknowledged the lockout has been hard on many people.

"You can't say it isn't tough for them" he said, adding that the division in communities with Crystal plants "isn't getting any better."

But he said the support of the AFL-CIO, which announced last week it will put more political muscle and money behind the union, has bolstered spirits.

"It's a great boost," he said.

Riskey and Ingulsrud voiced divergent views on whether a resolution is in sight. Ingulsrud said he hasn't heard anything from the union that would indicate a coming détente.

But Riskey said progress is possible. He pointed to recent contract settlement at Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative, a Renville, Minn., beet company, as evidence that "things can get done.

"Everything comes to an end," he said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502

Moorhead factory entrance
American Crystal Sugar offices in Moorhead. The company says the pay increases it is offering would more than make up for increased health care premiums. Dave Wallis / The Forum

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