CROOKSTON, MINN. - Ten months ago, American Crystal Sugar ushered in what has become one of the state's longest work stoppages in decades, locking out 1,300 union workers.

On Saturday, those workers can accept essentially the same contract offer they soundly rejected last year and end their economic suffering, but potentially lose a battle over workplace power.

A new vote was called after some workers at Crystal's five Red River valley plants requested it -- and it's a good bet they didn't ask just to say "no" again.

"There are people who are [economically] broken down, who are at their limit," said Scott Aubol, a 34-year veteran of the plant.

But there appear to be plenty of workers like Aubol who still won't settle for a contract that erodes seniority and other long-held union rights. "There's no way possible we can vote for it and sleep at night," he said.

Still, the company has shown no inclination to budge. "This is the right thing to do," said Crystal Sugar Chief Executive Dave Berg. "We have to manage costs. What business doesn't have to manage costs?"

Union workers and company executives say they're surprised the dispute has lasted this long for the farmers cooperative, which produces up to 15 percent of the nation's refined sugar. While the outcome of Saturday's vote is anyone's call, most expect it to be considerably closer than two earlier contract votes. And no matter when the lockout ends, the bitterness between union workers and the company won't go away soon.

"This wound will never heal," said Marc LaPlante, who has worked at the Crookston plant 39 years and said he plans to vote no.

The cooperative made a "final offer" last July, which was rejected by 96 percent of workers. The lockout went into effect Aug. 1. Three months later, virtually the same offer was rejected by 90 percent of the voting workers. Since then, sporadic contract talks have gotten nowhere.

This time around, workers will vote on an offer similar to the last one. It would raise wages 13 percent over five years, but significantly boost health care costs and weaken key union contract language, most notably seniority rights.

Replacement workers

Crystal's five plants -- two in North Dakota and three in Minnesota -- have kept operating with replacement workers. So has a smaller distribution facility in Chaska. By federal law, replacements in a lockout are temporary, so union workers should get their jobs back if they approve the latest offer.

The lockout has been costly for both sides. Crystal's production costs have risen by $137 million over six months and beet farmers' earnings have eroded. They received $59 per ton of beets last year, well below the $73 per ton received by farmers in a rival Red River valley beet co-op.

"There was a significant cost of doing [the lockout], but all things considered we have weathered the storm," Berg said.

Indeed, $59 per ton is still Crystal's second-highest farmer payout on record, after 2011's bonanza. And beet farmers are almost guaranteed to make a profit, because of a federal price support program that greatly restricts sugar imports.

Workers, who made $40,000 a year on average before overtime, have been pinched hard. They're losing $1,000 to $2,300 a month in lost wages, according to their union, with North Dakota workers getting particularly hammered. By North Dakota law, they're not eligible for unemployment benefits.

In Minnesota, unemployment benefits for most locked-out workers expire between the end of June and the end of July, so it's probably no coincidence that the re-vote has surfaced now.

Becki Jacobson's unemployment benefits are set to run out this month. She gets $489 a week in unemployment, compared with $810 a week (before any overtime) as a production process technician at Crystal's Moorhead plant.

To make up the difference, the 30-year Crystal Sugar veteran has cut back on everything: steaks are out, mac and cheese are in. Shopping is window shopping only; holiday gifts for adult children are bare-bones. Still, she said she would vote against the contract.

"It's just plain union busting what they want to do. It makes no sense," said Jacobson, who is looking for another job.

Many locked-out workers have already left the company for employment elsewhere. Since the lockout began, 240 union workers have either quit or retired. Peter McDougall, a Crystal employee for 31 years, is one of them.

In January, he was hired as a welder by the Bobcat Co., maker of skid loaders and mini-excavators. He drives 180 miles round trip from his home in Moorhead to Bobcat's plant in Gwinner, N.D. The pay is about the same as his sugar mill job. Pledges required

Oftentimes, prospective employers won't hire Crystal workers unless they vow not to return to the sugar mill when the lockout ends. Bobcat didn't ask McDougall about the issue, but he quit Crystal anyway last month.

"I kept thinking about it and finally went up and told [Crystal] to stuff it," he said. "I felt good about it."

McDougall voted against the earlier Crystal contracts, but he's since changed his mind. Economically, the deal is a "wash," he said, and a lot of workers' wages have been lost in the past 10 months due to the lockout. "Hindsight is 20-20, but knowing what I know now, I would have voted for it."

Until the lockout, labor peace had reigned at Crystal Sugar for 30 years. Workers like McDougall usually started in menial jobs -- sweeping floors, loading boxcars -- and worked their way up, measuring their tenure in decades.

They accumulated a lot of seniority, and seniority rights -- an essential tenet of any labor union -- are under fire. Under Crystal's contract offer, jobs would be filled and workers would advance not on seniority, but on management's judgment of who's best qualifed.

Crystal Sugar took a "management rights" approach to the new contract, said Berg. That means giving managers more discretion generally on how a workplace is governed, vs. terms spelled out in a labor contract.

The changes are necessary to improve the beet plants' long-term operating efficiency, and the company's farmer/owners are resolutely behind them, Berg said. "They haven't flinched," he said.

Workers in Crookston say farmer solidarity is a myth -- pro-union farmers are afraid to speak up for fear of getting flak from Crystal directors and pro-lockout farmers. In smaller towns like Crookston, a union worker is often bound to know a beet farmer, or at least know someone who knows one.

The dispute has cast a pall over the Red River Valley, and Mike Christopherson, managing editor of the Crookston Daily Times, has spent plenty of time observing it. He said it's difficult to imagine a reversal given the previous votes, though he wonders how long the workers can hold out.

"You can't go belly up if you've got a family to feed," he said. "The company has all the time in the world, but these people don't."

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003