Union workers at American Crystal Sugar approved a new contract on Saturday, ending one of Minnesota’s longest and largest labor disputes.

Prior to the contract’s approval by 55 percent of those voting Saturday, the company’s 1,300 workers had rejected essentially the same contract four times and had been locked out of their jobs for 20 months.

The last vote held Dec. 1 was rejected by 55 percent of the workers, down from 63 percent in June. The contract was first shot down in the summer of 2011 by 96 percent of voters, leading to the lockout.

John Riskey, president of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 167G, said in an interview Saturday that he would work to help “make sure everything is right” for workers returning to the company after the long-fought contract.

“This means Crystal Sugar’s skilled, experienced workers will be transitioning back to the factories to start repairing the damage that’s been done over the past 20 plus months,” said Riskey in a released statement. “BCTGM members thank all who have supported our stand for justice and dignity and who have helped our families survive these hard times.”

The company basically gave its final offer in 2011 and hasn’t deviated from their stance since. In response to the union’s yes vote, Crystal Vice President Brian Ingulsrud said he’s pleased “our employees have accepted the contract and that they’ll be coming back to work.”

“The transition to bring them back to work is going to be complex, and we’ll work through that. I think everybody is going to need to be patient as we work through the process of integrating our lockout employees back into our workforce.”

About 640 workers had quit or retired from Crystal Sugar between the lockout’s begin and April 1. Both Ingulsrud and union officials expect most of the remaining workers to return to their jobs at the company within the next 40 days or so. Under federal labor law, locked-out union members have a right to go back to work after a settlement. Ingulsrud said workers will be “given their jobs back. 99 percent of the time, it would be the exact same position.”

As for the replacement workers, company officials said the resignations and retirements should create openings for them to remain on the job.

“At the end of the day, the majority of those replacement employees will be able to stay with the company,” Ingulsrud said.

Crystal Sugar locked out 1,300 union workers Aug. 1, 2011 after they resoundingly rejected a five-year contract that would have raised wages by 13 percent, but would have significantly increased their health care costs by transferring them from a union plan to the company’s health plan.

Also, union members originally rejected the broad “management rights” language of Crystal’s contract offer that gave managers more say in workplace decisions, including over promotions, where union seniority usually prevails. The company maintained in July 2011 that its offer was “final,” and indeed has not significantly moved since the lockout began.

Moorhead-based Crystal Sugar, a farmer-owned cooperative that is the nation’s largest U.S. beet sugar producer, operates plants in Moorhead, Crookston and East Grand Forks, and two more in North Dakota.

The mills have continued operating with temporary replacement workers, but the company’s operating costs have risen since the lockout began. Meanwhile, locked-out workers, who made $40,000 annually on average before overtime, have been hit hard economically, particularly since unemployment benefits ran out by last October.

Following Saturday’s vote, Riskey said workers are looking forward to putting the conflict to rest and heading back to work.

“The lockout was dragging the company down … somebody needed to step up to the plate and put families and communities first and especially our children … It’s time to move on.”

Rose French 612-673-4352