Forced into financial hardship by a 16-month-long lockout that halved their ranks, American Crystal Sugar workers plan to vote next week on a labor contract that's changed little from management's initial offering.

Many workers are eager for a steady paycheck as winter approaches, ending the seasonal factory or farming jobs they've relied on since the lockout started Aug. 1, 2011, said Gayln Olson, a sugar boiler and union leader. Workers plan to vote Dec. 1.

"People are giving up," said Jeannie Madsen, who worked in the Moorhead company's lab and is engaged to Olson. "People are losing everything. People just want their jobs back."

When workers first rejected the contract last year they numbered roughly 1,300, but about half have retired or quit as two dozen meetings between the union and American Crystal Sugar representatives went nowhere. The union has three times rejected the contract because of health care cuts and changes to the role seniority would play in promotions, among other concerns.

The decision to vote a fourth time came as pressure mounted within the ranks and after a Nov. 15 meeting between both sides. Olson said workers are struggling between fighting for their rights and meeting their families' basic needs.

"There are a lot of people who didn't want to vote" next week, Olson said. "It's a toss-up situation. I don't know how the vote's going to go, to be honest with you."

The last vote was in June, when 63 percent of the membership rejected the contract. At least 90 percent of workers rejected it in two votes in 2011.

The company is the nation's largest beet sugar producer and operates five plants in the Red River Valley, two in North Dakota and three in Minnesota. About 90 percent of its production weight is sold to industrial users, including confectioners, bakeries and breakfast cereal manufacturers.

No change in offer

American Crystal Sugar spokesman Jeff Schweitzer confirmed that the company's offer has basically remained unchanged.

"From the company's perspective, it's a very good offer," Schweitzer said.

The contract offers a 13 percent raise over five years but also expands the company's ability to contract out union jobs and increases workers' out-of-pocket health care expenses, the union has said.

Workers make an average of $40,000 a year at the plant.

Madsen said she's upset that the company won't compromise on some issues when the union has made concessions. The contract calls for random drug testing of all union workers, she said. Management refused the union's push to include supervisors and contract employees, she said, and the union eventually conceded on the matter.

"It's very, how do you say, aggravating that they're not willing to give anything," Madsen said.

'Relentless' standoff

Olson and retired AFL-CIO chief of staff Bill Moore said the lockout has been used as a tool to push workers to the brink of ruin. Replacement workers are being used.

Last month, the AFL-CIO announced a nationwide boycott of the company's products, including Market Pantry-branded sugar sold at Target stores.

"It's relentless, unmerciful," said Moore, who has worked with the union. "Who can survive that?"

Families have packed up and left, they said. Many others are struggling to stay afloat. Olson and Madsen lost their home to foreclosure in January and moved their four children to a smaller home that needed repair.

Madsen earned her certified nursing assistant license and is making about $4 less an hour than at the factory, where she's worked a decade.

"I'm thinking of voting [the contract] down, but on the other hand, it'd be nice to work," said Madsen, summing up the dilemma.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 @ChaoStrib