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American Crystal Sugar union reps say company threatening workers with potential lockout

The American Crystal Sugar plant in Moorhead. Forum file photo

MOORHEAD - Union representatives of American Crystal Sugar Co. employees have filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board against the company for failing to negotiate in good faith and for threatening workers with a potential lockout.

American Crystal Sugar and local unions affiliated with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union have until Aug. 1 to agree on a new contract.

John Riskey, president of the union local, said it represents more than 1,300 union employees who work in locations up and down the Red River Valley.

Riskey said negotiators have met on 11 days with company representatives and there are only three meeting dates planned before the Aug. 1 deadline.

American Crystal Sugar Co. spokesman Jeff Schweitzer said the company is confident an agreement will be reached.

"American Crystal's viewpoint is that we want our employees on the job, and we think we can get a deal done and a contract in place," Schweitzer said. "For that to happen, both parties are going to have to be committed. We think there is room for compromise."

Riskey said the main dispute right now is over job description language American Crystal wants changed.

"We've worked decades on the language, and they want to strip it apart," he said.

In a news release regarding the charges, Riskey wrote that company negotiators brought more than 40 pages worth of proposals "that would radically overhaul the collective agreement, give the company the ability to outsource jobs, and burden employees with increased health insurance costs."

He said the union has simply proposed a settlement similar to the one settled with another sugar beet producer, Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative, in May.

Riskey said the company has been preparing for a lockout since last year.

"They had absolutely no intention of negotiating a new contract in good faith. And that is illegal," Riskey said.

A July 18 memo from American Crystal Sugar management tells employees to remove all personal belongings from the property before Aug. 1 in the event of a lockdown.

Schweitzer said the company is simply prepared as a lockout may occur just weeks before harvest.

"Our hope is that we get a contract in place," Schweitzer said. "As a responsible business, we need to prepare for any potential outcome."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530