MOORHEAD - Union workers began picketing at the American Crystal Sugar plant here and six other processing plants today after failing to reach a contract agreement with company executives.
"Instead of letting 1,300 people continue working while a fair contract is negotiated, American Crystal executives have instead decided to hurt our communities with an unnecessary lockout," said John Riskey, the president of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local Union 167G, in a statement read at 7 this morning at each of the company's processing facilities.
American Crystal Sugar operates five factories in the Red River Valley region - Moorhead, East Grand Forks and Crookston in Minnesota and Hillsboro and Drayton in North Dakota. The company also has facilities in Chaska, Minn., and Mason City, Iowa.
In Moorhead, American Crystal workers said they felt betrayed to find the gates locked as they arrived for work this morning. The union and company had until Sunday night to reach a contract agreement.
"We don't want to be locked out," said Paul Sutherland, a union steward and negotiator, outside the Moorhead plant. "We wanted to work."
Union members will be stationed at six gates, 24 hours a day, doing informational picketing, Sutherland said.
Motorists driving by this morning honked their horns in support of the workers, who are holding signs and umbrellas to protect themselves from the rain.
Sutherland said union members are eager to continue negotiating.
More than 1,200 - or about 97 percent - of the union members voted Saturday on whether to approve Crystal's final contract proposal, union representative Mark Froemke said.
Of those, 96 percent of members rejected the contract, Froemke said.
Brian Ingulsrud, Crystal's vice president for administration and company negotiator for the talks, said late Saturday he was surprised and disappointed by the union's vote.
Ingulsrud said there were no plans to negotiate any further.
"We want to get back to work and back to the negotiating table as soon as possible," Riskey said in today's statement. "We're not asking for much. We're asking for a contract that doesn't put our jobs in jeopardy."
The union said it wants a contract to benefit everyone, and workers should have the protection of health care, short-term disability and job security.
With the lockout on, the company has prepared to bring in non-union workers to run the company's factories, Ingulsrud said.
According to an American Crystal Sugar website, the company's final offer is built on an average $75,000 pay-and-benefits package for employees. Pay will be increased 8 percent over the first year.
According to a summary of the contract, there will be another 9 percent wage rate increase spread over the remaining term of the contract, for a total of 17 percent over five years. Pension fund payments will also be increased.
Union employees must transition to the same health insurance plan as other employees as of Jan. 1, 2012.
The offer also increases vacation days, allows drug testing and a clause to allow the company to "promote the most qualified employees into open positions."
With the sugar beet harvest only weeks away, Ingulsrud said American Crystal can't risk a potential strike by allowing the union members to continue working without a contract at "a very critical time."