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American Crystal Sugar union workers: 'We don't want to be locked out'

Bryon Standfield mans Gate 6 at the Moorhead American Crystal Sugar plant Monday, following a lockout of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union workers. Standfield, a 31-year employee of the plant, worked as an environmental technician with the wastewater lagoons. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

MOORHEAD - Roy Mortenson felt betrayed Monday when he arrived for his 7 a.m. shift at American Crystal Sugar and found the gates locked.

"I used to be proud to work for this company," said Mortenson, an electrical control technician and 34-year American Crystal Sugar employee. "I'm not so proud anymore."

Mortenson was among the 1,300 union workers locked out of the Moorhead plant and six other processing plants after they failed to reach a contract agreement with company executives.

Leaders of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local Union 167G say they want to be at work, but the offer from American Crystal Sugar management puts their job security in jeopardy.

Bill Ingulsrud, Crystal's vice president for administration and company negotiator for the talks, said officials are disappointed employees weren't working on Monday.

"We offered what we felt was a very attractive contract," Ingulsrud said. "We expected them to agree to that, but unfortunately they didn't."

More than 1,200 - or about 97 percent - of the union members voted Saturday on whether to approve Crystal's final contract proposal.

Of those, 96 percent of members rejected the contract.

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.

Replacement workers contracted through a Mankato firm arrived Monday to fill the shifts.

Union members in Moorhead plan to be stationed at the plant's six gates 24 hours a day doing informational picketing, said Paul Sutherland, a union steward and negotiator.

"We don't want to be locked out. We wanted to work," he said.

At odds

The disagreement about the contract is in the language, not in the money, said union representative Mark Froemke.

Union members fear the changes in the contract that relate to subcontractors put their jobs in jeopardy.

"We believe that they have the ability to basically contract out our jobs to other places," Froemke said. "We do not accept their language because we feel that it has major gaps in it."

Ingulsrud said the changes in the language aim to update wording that in some cases is more than 40 years old.

The intention of the language is not to affect job security or weaken the strength of the union, he said.

"It's really crystal clear that we simply can't lay off union employees by the use of subcontracting," Ingulsrud said.

The offer the union rejected included a 17 percent wage increase over the five years of the contract.

It asked employees to pick up a larger share of their medical costs to be in line with the health benefits package non-union employees receive. That would mean union workers would pay 17 percent of their medical costs instead of the 6 percent they pay now, Ingulsrud said.

Froemke called the health care plan a "complete fiasco" because the wording makes it unclear if employees' out-of-pocket expenses could fluctuate from year to year.

The company's offer also reduces short-term disability coverage from 80 percent to 60 percent.

Union leaders say they've been paying into that policy for 30 years.

Ingulsrud said the benefits union workers would receive under the new contract are still competitive compared to national averages.

Company officials feel it's prudent to address some of the areas where they're paying outside of normal market rates to make sure they can stay profitable over the five years of the contract.

"The company is doing well in terms of profitability right now, but it's because the price of sugar is extremely high," Ingulsrud said. "We're waiting for when the price of sugar goes down, because it's inevitable that it will at some point. When that happens, with the other cost increases that we've seen, our profits will go down substantially."

Lockout end unclear

Froemke said union leaders are eager to continue negotiating.

"We're willing to sit down any place, anytime, anywhere, to try to come to a reasonable contract that satisfies the needs of the workforce, the company and the farmers," Froemke said.

Ingulsrud said since the union rejected their offer, there are no immediate plans to resume negotiations.

"We need to see something back from them that would indicate that they truly want to deal," he said. "Up until this point, it seems that they haven't really wanted a deal."

American Crystal Sugar is contracting with Strom Engineering of Mankato for the replacement workers.

Ingulsrud said it's costing the company more money to pay wages and provide housing for the replacement workers than it would to pay the union workers. He declined to provide specific numbers.

The replacement workers come from across the country and are screened the same way the permanent workforce is, Ingulsrud said.

John Radick, president of Strom Engineering, said he could not talk to the media about the replacement workers.

The Teamsters Joint Council 32 sent a letter to members Monday asking affiliated local union members to not provide services or make deliveries to American Crystal Sugar out of solidarity to the locked-out workers.

The Teamsters president could not be reached for comment.

Bill Hejl, an Amenia, N.D., sugar producer, said he's not worried about the lockout having an effect on growers.

"I feel confident that they'll be able to crank up the factories when they need to," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590