Now that one of Minnesota’s longest labor disputes has ended, union members and workers who replaced them for more than 20 months at American Crystal Sugar face a daunting challenge:
Union and company officials will meet this week to discuss how and when hundreds of locked-out workers can return to their jobs. The company has promised to make a “good faith effort” to start bringing union members back within 40 days, American Crystal Vice President Brian Ingulsrud said.
How long it will take the sugar beet processor to unify its workforce is anyone’s guess, labor experts said.
“There are losers all around in long lockouts or strikes,” University of Minnesota industrial relations specialist John Budd said.
Technical writer Susan Sylvester of Crookston is looking forward to returning to a post at American Crystal’s local factory. But she and others expect that friction might surface at the company’s five factories in the Red River Valley. That’s because the company expects to permanently hire hundreds of replacement workers to fill many of the 1,300 jobs union members held before the lockout began on Aug. 1, 2011.
Union workers approved a new contract Saturday with 55 percent voting in favor of an offer that has been on the table for nearly two years. American Crystal workers rejected essentially the same contract four times, initially by a 96 percent vote.
“There will be feelings there because you have to deal with these people who came and took our jobs,” said Sylvester, a board member for local 167G of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union. “If they didn’t [replace union workers], this would have been settled a long time ago.
“It will take a while for feelings to mend.”
The union local’s president, John Riskey, said Sunday that he expects his members to be professional with the workers who replaced them. But Monday, as workers passed through union offices, feelings ran high. “One guy just walked out of here saying it’s going to be hard [to get along],” Riskey said.
Besides repairing relationships with replacements and supervisors, returning workers may also need to fix equipment run by novices in their absence, Riskey said. He noted that two workers have been seriously burned in recent months by scalding liquids used in the process of turning sugar beets into sugar products.
“We’ll have to see what shape the factories are in,” Riskey said. “We definitely don’t want to put our people into an unsafe work environment.”
Ingulsrud said they won’t be. “We have tried to make all our factories safe places to work before, during and after the lockout.” He said the two burn cases are still under investigation.
Ingulsrud acknowledged that some tension between replacement workers and returning union workers may exist, but “our goal is to have a workplace where workers respect each other, and we will work very diligently toward that goal.”
He said about 640 of the 1,300 locked-out workers have retired or formally resigned. They can reapply for jobs, and their experience will be a plus, Ingulsrud said. But they have no job guarantee like the 660 union members who didn’t quit.
Those 660 will receive company letters allowing them to return to the jobs they had as of Aug. 1, 2011, Ingulsrud said. In rare cases where those jobs were eliminated, union workers will be offered comparable jobs.
However, Ingulsrud thinks many of the 660 may not return because they found other work, leaving their American Crystal jobs open for some of the 1,100 replacement workers hired during the lockout.
Asked what the company gained from the 20-month lockout, Ingulsrud said positive contract changes that include “giving us the ability to promote the most qualified employees.”
Before the lockout, promotions were based on seniority. Now, seniority will only be a factor when two job candidates are equally qualified.
The U’s Budd believes the lockout eventually worked in management’s favor because American Crystal had to make very few concessions to its final contract offer.
The length of the lockout also helped the company. If the lockout had been a short one, Budd explained, American Crystal would have been forced to fire most of the temporary replacements to make way for returning union members.
But Budd cautioned that this victory came at a cost to the cooperative.
“Their profits clearly suffered,” he said. “Their payments to members were significantly lower than facilities without a lockout.”
Lingering bitterness by union workers forced to work beside replacements also could lead to morale problems going forward, Budd said.
University of California, Los Angeles, labor expert Chris Tilly agreed. While the lockout may have tilted the playing field more in the direction of management, it hardly counts as a foolproof labor-relations strategy at American Crystal Sugar or anywhere else, according to Tilly.
“Twenty months is an awfully long time,” he said. “The problem with starving the other guy out is that you’re starving yourself, too.”
The new contract includes a 13 percent wage hike over the course of the agreement, which expires July 31, 2017. Union members, who previously paid minimal co-pays and deductibles, but no health insurance premiums, will pay an average 20 percent of their health care costs, Ingulsrud said.
In American Crystal’s three Minnesota plants, replacement workers must legally join the union, Sylvester said. That is not the case in the company’s two North Dakota plants.
In Crookston, population about 7,500, replacement workers have lived in apartments or trailer homes, Sylvester said. But she doesn’t expect locals to spurn them now that the lockout has ended.
“In a small town where I live, we don’t want to hate our neighbors,” she said. “We want to get our community back together.”