The Minnetonka company is supplying replacement workers in the American Crystal dispute.
For more than half a century, a little-known Minnetonka firm called Strom Engineering has provided troops to help companies across the country battle their unions.
American Crystal Sugar sought reinforcements from Strom when it locked out some 1,300 union employees in Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa last week. Strom workers have stepped in at a steel mill for nearly a year, replaced striking mechanics at Northwest Airlines and kept a food plant running during a dispute.
To companies that hire Strom, it is an ally that can help their bargaining position merely by drawing up contingency plans for a work stoppage.
Union leaders who have gone up against Strom clients have a different view.
"To us, Strom is basically an outfit that hires mercenaries to basically go in and destroy communities," said Mark Froemke, president of the AFL-CIO's West Area Labor Council and a member of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco and Grain Millers union, which represents the sugar beet workers.
At Moorhead-based American Crystal, a farmer-owned co-op and the largest U.S. beet sugar producer, replacement workers arrived Monday morning in one of the biggest labor stoppages in the state in years. The company called in Strom's workers after union members overwhelmingly rejected a contract offer.
Strom CEO John Radick declined to comment on the company's activities or its clients. But the company's website says that in just the past year it has helped 127 companies "to bargain confidently and reach a fair and equitable agreement with union leadership."
A Dun & Bradstreet report describes Strom as offering "engineering services," with annual sales of $13.6 million. Strom has a number of associated business entities, though, and it's unclear if their revenue is included in that figure.
Brian Ingulsrud, American Crystal's vice president for administration, declined to comment on Strom. "I think that's kind of a private matter within a company of why they chose any particular vendor," he said.
Stephen H. Norwood, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma, said the decline of organized labor has reduced the need for firms like Strom, but an unknown number of them survive.
Norwood, author of "Strikebreaking and Intimidation: Mercenaries and Masculinity in Twentieth-Century America," said employers today rely more heavily on law firms than on muscle and armies of strikebreakers, he said.
"In the '80s there were a fair number of them, but the labor movement is far weaker than it used to be," Norwood said. "So usually if there are fewer strikes, there are going to be fewer strikebreaking firms."
Robert Michael Smith, a history professor at Sinclair Community College in Ohio, said many firms have adopted high-tech ways to intimidate unions, such as videotaping their activities. Little gets written about firms like Strom, he said, because "no one cares about labor anymore."
Strom has evolved with the times, according to its website. It says that as early as two decades ago, Radick drove the development of new services offering strategic guidance for clients who were preparing for labor disputes.
Under the heading "Experience," Strom lists a number of brief case studies describing how it helped clients prepare for work disruptions or keep operations going once a strike or lockout began. In some cases, the company says it improved productivity and reduced costs in the bargain.
The firm says its clients have included a mining company, a grocery store chain, a power company, a steel company, an aerospace company and truck, tractor, helicopter, food, tire and plastics manufacturers.
Given the tense situations Strom enters, it seldom attracts lawsuits. But the company has been criticized in the past for hiring ex-cons, misleading job applicants and running grueling, 12-hour shifts seven days a week without so much as a bathroom break.
In 2004, Strom took heat for hiring 10 former prison inmates released on community supervision to work during a lockout at the former Case New Holland tractor plants in Racine and Burlington, Wis.
According to an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a state corrections official ordered the ex-cons to quit, citing concerns about potential conflicts with hundreds of United Auto Workers (UAW) union members who had been locked out of the plants by owner CNH-Global Inc.
No bathroom breaks
Cassandra Lynn Johnson worked for Strom as an overhead crane operator at an AK Steel Corp. plant in Youngstown, Ohio, during a labor dispute that began in March 2006.
In a federal sex discrimination lawsuit she filed against Strom four years ago, Johnson alleged that she was told to work on a crane without proper training and assigned to work 12-hour shifts without breaks.
When she asked about bathroom breaks, Johnson said, she was told that if she couldn't wait she should urinate off the back of her crane, as the men were doing. She quit, saying the demand was unreasonable and unsafe.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Hogan dismissed Johnson's claim that Strom treated her differently than her male counterparts. But he declined to dismiss her claim that the firm's practices had a disparate impact on her, and the parties settled in 2008 for undisclosed terms.
Rick LaPorte, president of the Canadian Auto Workers Local 444 in Windsor, Ontario, remembers when Strom Canada, an offshoot of the Minnetonka firm, attempted to bring in replacement workers for the Navistar International Corp. truck manufacturing plant in Chatham.
"Our experience was not at all good with them," LaPorte said.
He said union members lined the highway to stop replacement workers from getting to the plant. A van pulled up with workers accompanied by some security personnel dressed in fatigues, he said.
When one of the protesters fell, the driver of the van panicked and ran over him, injuring the man, LaPorte said. He said the driver claimed he feared for his life when union members surrounded the van.
"Ultimately, it forced everybody to sit down at the bargaining table," he said. "A week later, everybody went back to work. But it took a crisis to get it done."
Dan Browning • 612-673-4493