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American Crystal hiring replacement workers

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news Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

GRAND FORKS - Nearly four months into its lock-out of 1,300 union workers, American Crystal Sugar Co. began advertising Sunday in The Forum, the Grand Forks Herald and elsewhere for "sugar factory workers."

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The ads, two separate ones, offer $15 an hour plus "day-one benefits including medical, personal and flex" dollars, for manufacturing technicians; and $23.50 and $24.50 an hour for millwrights and electronic control technicians, respectively.

Brian Ingulsrud, Crystal's vice president for administration, said the new ads are a recognition that the lock-out is going to last longer than the company had hoped.

Before the union workers voted down a proposed five-year contract July 31, Crystal contracted with Strom Engineering from the Twin Cities to provide contract replacement workers at the five processing factories in East Grand Forks, Crookston, Moorhead, Drayton, N.D., and Hillsboro, N.D.

In August, it locked union employees out and began bringing in the replacement workers before sugar beet harvest began Sept. 1.

Beets are harvested from Sept. 1 to mid-October, while the processing of beets into sugar, the "campaign," runs from Sept. 1 to mid-May.

Importing contracted replacement workers was a short-term move, Ingulsrud said.

"They have done a great job," he said. "But this looks like it's going to last longer than any of us wanted, and we felt it was necessary to move into a different phase, a new phase, one that is more efficient for more of a long-term lockout."

"Again, we don't want that, but if that's what is going to happen, we feel it is more efficient to have more local temporary employees," he said. "That's why we started the process of hiring local employees."

The company got about 100 applications Monday from the ads that ran Sunday, he said. "The long-term goal, if this continues, would be for us to hire 1,300 employees."

Because the company is picking up the housing and per-diem costs of the Strom-hired replacement workers, as well as their wages, it's more expensive than hiring workers who already live in the region, Ingulsrud said.

The new ads added to the frustration felt by locked-out employees, said Lester Bergh, a union member who lives near Kindred, N.D., and has worked 15 years in Crystal's Moorhead factory.

"That just gives me a reason not to accept the contract," he said of the ad's promise of "day-one benefits."

"I worked there three years (during the nine-month campaign), because to get medical benefits you have to be a year-rounder," Bergh told the Herald. "They are giving first-day benefits to new employees, something I had to work three years to get. That tells me that health care is off the table (for further negotiations)."

The way he reads the ad, the company is offering to pay all health insurance costs for new employees, Bergh said. That would be similar to what union workers had before the contract ran out July 31.

But Ingulsrud said the plan is to give new employees the same health insurance plan managers and other non-union employees now receive: Employees pay 17 percent of the premium and the company pays 83 percent.

That's also part of the company's last offer to union employees: After one more year of free health care, they would pay 17 percent of the premium cost.

Bergh, who is manning picket lines outside his factory like other union members, wonders if the new ads are a sign that the replacement workers aren't working out.

"When I sit by the gate, we see the company bring these workers in, in vans, and we see people today that we didn't see at the beginning, that's all I know," Bergh said. "A lot of those replacement workers were brought in from out of state and they are leaving because they want to go home."

There has been some turnover among Strom's replacement workers, but it's been relatively minor, Ingulsrud said.

Bergh also said he thinks a fire last week and a shutdown since at the Crookston factory stemmed from replacement workers who didn't know what they were doing.

Ingulsrud said the diffuser did go down last Thursday in Crookston, shutting down sugar production.

The diffuser is a 75-yard long processing system in which the majority of the sugar is separated from the beets after they are sliced.

"Repairing it is a fairly lengthy process and they expect the repairs to be done on Wednesday," Ingulsrud said. "It has nothing to do with a fire, just a malfunction internally. And it is not anything to do with user error or the temporary employees doing anything wrong. It's something that happens from time to time."

Bergh said he works on the diffuser at his factory.

"Usually we never have to work on the diffuser during the campaign," he said. "We do the maintenance in the summer."

Ingulsrud said the company is advertising the new jobs as "limited duration," because "we are hoping our union employees will come back to work, once we are able to reach an agreement."

John Riskey, a leader of Local 167G of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union for the Drayton, East Grand Forks and Moorhead factories, said if the company truly wants its union workers back, it should keep negotiating.

"Let's sit down at the table until we get this thing ironed out," Riskey said Monday.

Meanwhile, Crystal officials released a letter Monday from the National Labor Relations Board dated Nov. 16 denying an appeal by the union of a dismissal in September of their claim that Crystal was not bargaining in good faith.

That buttresses the company's claims it is acting in good faith, Ingulsrud said.

Riskey said the NLRB denied a similar appeal by Crystal about the union's good faith.

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