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LIFE ON THE PICKET LINE: American Crystal workers keep the faith

The sound of crickets chirping reverberated through the crisp early morning air, interrupted every now and then by the honking horn of a passing motorist.

A group of darkened figures slowly rose to their feet from folding chairs arranged along the roadway, cutting conversations short to wave picket signs at approaching vehicles.

Life on the picket line provides plenty of time for reflection and frustration.

"We're out here 24 hours a day, seven days a week on four-hour shifts," said locked-out union worker Scott Ripplinger as he picketed outside the American Crystal Sugar Co. plant in East Grand Forks last week. "We'd rather be working. This isn't about if we want to work or not. We want to work. They won't let us. We're locked out."

The locked-out workers still show up to the plants where they once worked. Unable to return to work, they instead take turns manning picket lines set up outside the gates and watch as replacement workers contracted by the company come and go.

But three weeks into a lockout initiated by company management after union members overwhelmingly rejected the company's last contract offer, picketing union workers say they are united and remain undaunted.

"I don't mind being out here," said Dave Bakke, who has worked at the company's East Grand Forks plant for nearly 32 years as he picketed in front of the plant this week. "I'm not only out here for myself, I'm out here for everybody else, too."

Union officials say they are eager to begin negotiating again, but American Crystal management has so far declined to return to the negotiating table, preferring to continue using replacement workers.

"I don't like to see other people showing up to work in our plant. It should be us in there," said union worker Ben Johnson, a nearly 35-year veteran of the East Grand Forks plant, gesturing toward the darkened silhouette of the plant. "We're the ones who know how to run it."

The replacements

The quiet overnight scene of a small group of picketing union workers outside the main gate of the East Grand Forks plant stands in contrast to the emotional scene played out at the plant's back gate only hours earlier.

Earlier that night, the crowd of union picketers and their supporters swelled as it does twice every day to greet the arrival and departure of replacement workers contracted to run the plant during the labor dispute.

The usually small group of union picketers at the back gate turned into an angry throng of about 80 waving signs on a recent evening. Union supporters used noisemakers and implored the replacement workers to "go home" as a caravan of unmarked white vans slowly left the back gate.

In the middle of the exchange was a video camera set up by a union supporter, recording the scene.

"They tape us so we tape them," said union representative Mark Froemke. "They don't trust us, and we don't trust them."

The picketing workers say their chief complaint is with the company for locking them out and trying to get them to accept new contract language they worry would allow the company to contract out some current union-represented jobs. American Crystal officials have said that they changed some of the disputed wording in earlier versions of the proposed contact, and that the language in the last offer would prevent the company from subcontracting out work already done by union workers that would result in layoffs.

Union picketers say they don't trust the company and worry the current language could be interpreted in a way that would amount to stripping away collective bargaining rights for some positions.

In addition to their frustration with the company's senior management, a number of picketing union members also didn't hold back this week when asked about the replacement workers brought in to do their jobs.

"It's disgusting," said Ripplinger, a locked-out ion technician first class at the plant. "They're coming up here and taking our jobs. I could never work at a job where another man was locked out of or even on strike. I would never take another person's job. Never."

Financial strain

The about 1,300 locked out union workers at American Crystal's five Red River Valley sugar processing plants and two other sites in Minnesota and Iowa have not received paychecks since their contract expired July 31.

Many workers at Minnesota facilities have begun drawing unemployment to help cover some of their expenses. Locked out workers in North Dakota generally are not eligible for unemployment.

"I never thought I'd have to sign up for unemployment," said Duane Tretter, an electrician who has worked at the East Grand Forks plant for the past two decades.

Tretter, 50, recalled a recent conversation with his daughter, who is in college. "The first thing she said was, 'What happens now that you don't have a paycheck anymore?'" He said he told his daughter that the family might need to take out more student loans to help pay for her college. He said he told her in a worst-case scenario he would have to sign up for food stamps. "Her jaw just dropped," Tretter said. "She said, 'Are you serious, dad?' I hope the lockout ends soon and it doesn't come to that."

The locked-out workers and their families are also without their employer-provided health insurance, although they are eligible to receive COBRA short-term insurance if they can afford it.

Many workers saved up as much as they could when it looked like a lockout was a possibility. But being out of work has strained many working-class families financially.

"We'll be alright," said Jonathan Straub, an instrumentation technician at the East Grand Forks plant. "I've had to take even more money that was squirreled away out to the point it is getting close to nothing, depending on how long this lasts. For now, everything is pretty well riding on the line."

Some union workers said they believe American Crystal is continuing to use replacement workers and not returning to the negotiating table in an effort to weaken or break the union. American Crystal officials have repeatedly denied those claims and have said the company's final contract offer was fair.

Froemke, the union representative, said that the resolve of union workers has not waivered despite their precarious position.

"This thing is hard on everyone financially," said Froemke, who is associated with the AFL-CIO of Minnesota while on leave from the American Crystal plant in East Grand Forks. "But there comes a time in your life when you have to stand up for what is right."

Tension on the picket line

American Crystal has beefed up security at its plants and has blocked off some plant entrances as a result of the lockout and picketing workers.

High-powered lights kick in and a generator begins humming at the back gate of the East Grand Forks plant as night falls. The lights help illuminate the gate area and a small group of union picketers sitting in chairs under a nearby portable canopy.

Picketers say the security guards won't talk to them. Other non-union plant workers have also chosen not to engage the picketers.

"Some of the supervisors working there drive in and out of that gate," Ripplinger said. "They won't even look up and wave to you or anything. They just totally ignore you. We've been friends with them for years. They can't even look up and wave because upper management has told them they're not allowed to."

Froemke said most union workers have been willing to show up to the picket line and do whatever is needed. During slower times, the workers chat about each other's lives and debate if the replacement workers will be able to do their jobs. They also help to boost each other's morale.

Some members of the community have stopped by to bring snacks, cold water or soda to the picketing workers.

On this night, a locked-out union member from the Drayton, N.D., plant stopped by at midnight to offer encouragement and marvel at the turnout of more than a dozen picketers outside the front gate of the East Grand Forks plant.

Drivers will occasionally slow down to argue with the picketers or give them the one-finger salute, but on this night no one did.

"We've had hundreds if not thousands of honks," said Froemke. "We haven't had nearly enough birds to make a flock."

Schuster reports on business. Reach him at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 107, or email Follow Schuster on Twitter at @RyanSchuster.