Sugar workers: For 3rd time, no

  • Article by: MIKE HUGHLETT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 24, 2012 - 6:43 AM

63% of the locked-out workers who voted Saturday turned down latest offer, which was similar to ones they've rejected twice before.

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Union workers pointed thumbs down and picketed in front of the main gate for Crystal Sugar in Crookston, Minn., as out-of-state non-union workers arrived to replace local union workers.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Union members at American Crystal Sugar's Red River Valley plants on Saturday rejected a contract offer for the third time, meaning that a lockout of 1,300 workers that began more than 10 months ago will continue.

Sixty-three percent of Crystal Sugar workers voted against the offer, and 82 percent of union members voted, according to the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union.

The locked-out workers voted on what was in essence the same contract rejected by 96 percent and 90 percent of those who voted on July 31 and Nov. 1 respectively. The re-vote was held after some workers asked for it.

With the no vote, there is no end in sight for the lockout. The company has shown no signs of budging on what it's called its "final offer," and talks between the union and company have gone nowhere.

"It's getting tough for people [economically], but they feel they need to get a fair contract," said John Riskey, head of Bakery and Confectionery workers Local 167G.

Crystal Sugar executives could not be immediately reached for comment.

The five-year contract offer called for a 4 percent raise in the first year, 3 percent in the second and 2 percent in each of the next three years. But it would have brought workers into the company's health care plan, which the union has said would have more than doubled out-of-pocket health care costs.

It also would have given management broader rights, including the ability to set aside worker seniority in filling open positions.

Crystal Sugar union workers on average make $40,000 a year, or $50,000 with overtime pay.

American Crystal Sugar, a farmer-owned cooperative, is the nation's largest beet sugar producer, with three plants in Minnesota -- Moorhead, Crookston, East Grand Forks -- and mills in Drayton and Hillsboro, N.D. It also has a distribution center in Chaska that is staffed by union workers.

Since the lockout began, Crystal Sugar has been operating with temporary replacement workers. At first, it brought in replacements from an outside contractor, Minnetonka-based Strom Engineering. But in late November, it began directly hiring replacement workers.

The lockout has been costly for Crystal Sugar. Its production costs were up $137 million during the first half of fiscal 2012 compared to those a year ago.

And the company's payout to beet farmers this year will be $59 per ton, well below the $73 a ton for Minn-Dak, another beet farmer cooperative in the Red River Valley. Still, that $59-per-ton payout is the second highest on record for Crystal Sugar.

Locked-out workers have lost $1,000 to $2,300 per month, the union says, with North Dakota workers hit the hardest, since, unlike Minnesota employees, they're not eligible for unemployment insurance. Unemployment benefits for many Minnesota Crystal workers will expire over the next month.

About 240 union workers have either retired or quit the company since the lockout began, some finding jobs elsewhere.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003

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