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'Loud and clear message': Union workers overwhelmingly reject contract

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'Loud and clear message': Union workers overwhelmingly reject contract
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By a 90 percent majority vote, union members on Tuesday rejected the amended contract proposals American Crystal Sugar Co. offered last month, according to union official John Riskey.

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"Today our members sent a loud and clear message to American Crystal executives," Riskey said, reading a prepared statement to reporters outside the union's office in downtown Grand Forks. "We want to work, but we will not accept a contract that puts our jobs and the entire community at risk."

Crystal's Vice President of Administration Brian Ingulsrud, who has represented the company during negotiations, said Tuesday following the vote: "I was hoping that our employees would have voted to get back to work. So I'm disappointed that didn't happen."

In Fargo, union workers huddled around the Howard Johnson lobby television as news of the vote was broadcast. Union members have set up a gathering area in the basement of the hotel.

Linda Hunter, a 33-year employee of American Crystal in Moorhead, cheered when Riskey announced the defeating vote.

"I wasn't going to vote for that contract and go backwards," she said.

Hunter, who lives in Fargo, said the 90 percent vote means even North Dakota workers who are ineligible for unemployment during the lockout are not willing to settle for an unfair contract.

Hunter said she hopes the overwhelming majority voting against this latest contract offer will send a message to management that it is time to change tactics.

The Moorhead-based cooperative, the nation's largest sugar beet processor, locked out the approximately 1,300 union employees Aug. 1, the day after the workers voted down the company's five-year contract by a reported 96 percent majority.

Union members have been manning picket sites around the five factories in the Red River Valley since the lockout began and have said they will do it all winter if necessary.

Becki Jacobson of Moorhead said she wants to return to work, but a fair contract must be in place and this latest round was not acceptable.

"I wasn't surprised at all at the outcome. If they would have given us a contract worth signing, it would have passed," Jacobson said.

Jacobson has worked for American Crystal for 30 years.

Ball in 'their court'

After talks in late August led to nothing, company and union officials met again last week in Fargo with a federal negotiator. The result was the contract proposal voted on Tuesday.

The company made two substantial changes addressing union concerns, Ingulsrud said, and it kept previously offered wage increases of 4 percent the first year, 3 percent the second year and 2 percent each of the final three years of the contract.

First, the company offered a guarantee that no union jobs or members would be cut due to sub-contracting certain work at the processing plants. Second, it agreed to offer free health insurance for 14 more months. After that, employees would pay 17 percent of the insurance premiums, while the company would pay 83 percent, which is what non-union Crystal employees now pay, including management, company officials say.

But Riskey said the company's new proposals weren't enough and that the union had offered 20 items last week that were ignored by Crystal. He would not give details about the 20 items.

"If the company executives are serious about getting us back to work, they should return to the negotiating table immediately with real compromises, not just repackaged versions of a contract that has now been rejected twice," Riskey said in his prepared comments.

"The ball is in their court," he added.

Ingulsrud said the opposite is the case.

"We made significant moves," he said. "We are the last one with a concrete proposal here. The union said they came with 20 changes, yet they were never willing to make any of those 20 proposals public, and I think the reason why is that they were quite immaterial."

There are no further talks planned, Ingulsrud said.

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