Crystal Sugar workers reject contract again

  • Article by: MIKE HUGHLETT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 2, 2012 - 6:34 AM

For the fourth time, union members rejected the company's contract offer, ensuring the 16-month lockout continues.

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American Crystal Sugar factory in Crookston Minn.

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One of the longest work stoppages in recent Minnesota history will continue as locked-out union workers at American Crystal Sugar Saturday rejected essentially the same contract for the fourth time, with 55 percent voting against.

While opposition to the contract has dwindled -- 96 percent voted against it 16 months ago just before the lockout started -- rising economic duress still hasn't deterred a majority of workers. In late June, during the last contract vote, 63 percent voted "no."

Those who rejected the contract again believe they've come too far to quit now in opposing an intransigent company, said John Riskey, president of Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers Local 167G.

"After what they have gone through and the fight they have put up, they want to keep up and continue fighting," he said. "They want the company to come back to the table for real give-and-take negotiating."

The company has barely budged in attempts to negotiate over the past 16 months. "We have already given them our final offer, and we have made it pretty clear it was our final offer," said Brian Ingulsrud, a Crystal Sugar vice president.

In a statement on its website, Crystal Sugar said it has offered workers a "solid and generous package." Crystal said the contract is similar to what it's offering its temporary replacement workers, who are "creating a productive and successful new workforce for our company."

Moorhead-based Crystal Sugar, a farmer-owned cooperative, is the largest U.S. beet sugar maker, churning out about 13 percent of the nation's refined sugar. It has plants in Crookston, East Grand Forks and Moorhead, as well as in Drayton and Hillsboro, N.D.

At the time of the lockout, Crystal Sugar workers made $40,000 annually on average before overtime. By federal law, locked-out workers would get jobs back at Crystal if they approve the contract.

But the number of workers who would actually return -- and the number voting on the contract -- has steadily fallen. About 520 of the 1,300-member bargaining unit have retired or quit, many taking other jobs. The union declined to say how many workers voted Saturday.

Marc LaPlante, who's worked at Crystal in Crookston since 1972, said he has steadfastly voted "no," but didn't vote Saturday.

He said he told Crystal just before the latest vote was called that he was retiring. "I'm just so fed up with the whole thing." LaPlante said he would have voted "no" again, but didn't vote because he's leaving. "The company has put the knife in people's back from day one."

LaPlante said he was "shocked" that the contract was rejected again, given the growing economic hardship workers are facing. Scott Aubol, a 34-year veteran worker at the Crookston plant, said he, too, was "stunned" by the vote.

Aubol said he had voted "no" on the contract until Saturday, when he voted for it. "I did change this time just because there are so many people who are really hurting," he said. "We're just beat up. ... It's unfightable with the money [the company] has, and their 'take-it-or-leave-it' attitude."

Still, he said there's "no way" he'd cross the picket line and go back to work. "I still support what we're fighting for."

The lockout began Aug. 1, 2011, after union members resoundingly shot down a contract offer from Crystal Sugar that would have raised wages by 13 percent over five years, but would have also increased health care costs by transferring workers to the company's benefit plan. The union has claimed out-of-pocket expenses would double for many workers.

Union members also balked at the "management rights" language in Crystal's contract offer. It would give management more discretion in workplace decisions, whittling away at seniority rights for promotions and possibly leading to contracting out work to non-union employees.

The initial offer before the lockout included a signing bonus of $2,000. The bonus was not included in the second contract vote, held Nov. 1, 2011, though the company tweaked its proposed language regarding contracting out. Ninety percent of workers voted "no."

Sporadic attempts to negotiate a solution went nowhere. In June, with economic stress rising, some workers asked to vote on the same contract that was rejected in November. Again, it was turned down, but by a smaller margin.

Minnesota workers' unemployment benefits began expiring in July and were totally gone by early October, eliminating a cushion of at least $1,000 per month. With the holiday season and winter approaching, some workers last month asked for another vote.

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