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Crystal, union talks break down

No progress was made during talks between American Crystal Sugar Co. and union representatives for its 1,300 locked out employees at a Fargo hotel on Thursday.

No further negotiations have been scheduled between the two sides.

American Crystal Sugar representatives offered the same "final offer" that 96 percent of union workers voted down before the previous contract expired and the company locked out all union-represented workers, officials for both sides said.

Union officials offered to negotiate potential changes to employer health coverage and possibly expand the company's substance abuse policy if the company removed all its controversial wording changes to the contract that union workers worry would erode collective bargaining rights and lead to the contracting out of union jobs.

"Our final offer stands," Brian Ingulsrud, American Crystal's vice president for administration, said. "The ball was in the union's court about coming back with a counter proposal. I would say this proposal they came back with had no substance. They simply asked us to disregard all the changes we have asked for. We view those as very important and as part of a comprehensive offer we gave them.

"Their proposal contained no details. It was simply eliminate all our language proposals."

Talks, which were requested by federal mediator Jeanne Frank, lasted most of the day Thursday at a Fargo hotel, although a press release from the company claimed actual negotiations didn't begin until early afternoon. Despite spending so much in the same hotel, no progress appeared to be made.

"We're confident in our position," said union representative Mark Froemke. "We made strong moves to end this lockout. American Crystal Sugar chose to reject those offers, so we're back to square one. But we are optimistic that we can come to an agreement."

Union representatives said they were willing to continue negotiations. Ingulsrud said the company would take part in another negotiating session if it is requested by the mediator.

Thursday's meeting was the first time the two sides had talked since the previous contract expired July 31 without a new deal in place.

Union workers who are part of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union overwhelmingly rejected the company's last contract offer July 30.

American Crystal Sugar locked out union workers and some non-union workers in union-represented positions Aug. 1. The company has brought in replacement workers to run its five sugar processing plants in East Grand Forks, Crookston and Moorhead in Minnesota and Hillsboro and Drayton in North Dakota and two other sites in Minnesota and Iowa.

"We came to the table in good faith with proposals that addressed many of the company's concerns including changes to health coverage and expanding upon the company's substance abuse policy," said John Riskey, the president and business manager of the union's 167G local tht represents workers at the East Grand Forks, Drayton and Moorhead plants, in a prepared statement. "Unfortunately, the company ignored our ideas and stubbornly offered the same proposal that 96 percent of our membership rejected."

Froemke said despite the differences in opinion, the union looks forward to returning to the bargaining table.

"We're always willing to sit down and negotiate a contract that works for all of us," he said. "But it takes two to tango. It's pretty hard to dance when only one side is trying to dance."

Ingulsrud said he was disappointed that the union did not offer a counter proposal with more "substance."

"Our offer is our final offer," he said. "We're waiting to see a more substantial offer from the union. We can't negotiate with ourselves."

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