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'It was kind of brutal at the table': Previous American Crystal labor dispute offered lessons

Troy Anderson, left, Don Carlson and Dennis Carlson greet passing motorists Tuesday as they display union signs while being locked out of their jobs at American Crystal Sugar in Moorhead. Anderson penned a song titled "Union Lockout 2011" that was uploaded to YouTube. David Samson / The Forum

MOORHEAD - After a strike by American Crystal Sugar workers 30 years ago, the mediator who helped the cooperative and labor union find common ground also gave them some advice: You'd better learn how to talk to each other.

"It was kind of brutal at the table, let me tell you," said Dan Gust Jr., president of the American Federation of Grain Millers Local 266 in Moorhead during the 28-day strike.

Officials took the message to heart, enrolling in federal labor-management relations training, and there hasn't been a similar labor impasse at American Crystal Sugar - until now.

Members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union continued to picket Tuesday outside the five American Crystal processing plants that locked them out after they rejected the company's latest five-year contract offer on Saturday.

Mark Froemke, union representative for BCTGM Local Union 167G, said there's a "big difference" between the current lockout and the strike of 1981.

"Because in a strike, the workers withhold their work from the company," he said. "And in a lockout, American Crystal Sugar is stopping us from doing the work."

In a letter to the editor published in Tuesday's Forum, American Crystal Vice President for Administration Brian Ingulsrud wrote that it was a "complicated and difficult decision to make," but the company can't allow employees to work without a contract as the sugar beet harvest begins and factories start to operate around the clock.

"The company would be vulnerable to a labor strike, in this case leaving beets rotting and farmers without any income," he wrote, adding that extending the current contract would simply delay the issues in need of resolution.

Many of those issues have been "red-flagged" as potential strike issues in past negotiations with union leadership, Ingulsrud wrote. But Froemke said the union has "never, ever, ever threatened Crystal with a strike" in the current negotiations.

"It's quite hurtful when the company and their negotiating team has stated things that are blatantly untrue," he said.

Gust, who helped write the seven-year contract that just expired, said negotiations were "a little hotter" back in 1981.

Wage negotiations began in early August that year. By the end of the month, a federal mediator had joined the talks between American Crystal and the American Federation of Grain Millers, which hadn't yet merged with the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers.

The negotiations centered on wages for the third year of a three-year contract. According to Forum archives, the union initially asked for a 21 percent wage increase and American Crystal offered 7.5 percent. Starting wages at the time were $5.14 per hour, with a top wage of $10.11 per hour.

A majority of the union's 900 members voted Aug. 28, 1981, to reject the company's latest offer - a 10 percent wage increase - and go on strike. The union wanted a 17 percent wage increase.

The next day, workers began picketing outside the idled processing plants in Crookston, East Grand Forks, Moorhead, Drayton, N.D., and Hillsboro, N.D. (American Crystal has hired replacement workers for the current lockout).

Union members were angry that American Crystal had given bonuses to non-union members in September 1980, and they demanded to be awarded such bonuses in the future.

It didn't happen. After a failed meeting Sept. 11 with the mediator in Minneapolis and another union vote Sept. 18 to reject the company's latest offer, the two sides gathered for a second time in Minneapolis on Sept. 23 and reached a tentative agreement. Two days later, union members voted 655 to 120 to accept the offer, ending the strike.

In the end, American Crystal kept the wage increase at 10 percent but made it retroactive to April 1 instead of Aug. 1. It also included holiday pay for Labor Day and a guarantee of $300 in retroactive pay for full-time employees.

Gust, an electrician at the Moorhead plant for 23 years and international union rep for 13 years prior to retiring in 2008, said it wasn't a huge win. But the training that followed helped avert future strikes.

"Sure, there were still hard feelings here and there, but for the most part everybody could at least talk to their factory manager without snarling at him," said Gust, 61, who lives near Durbin, N.D.

Gust said that with the union's support from farmers and representatives in Congress, he believes American Crystal will be under pressure to resume negotiations.

"And hopefully within a month they're back to work," he said. "If not, all bets are off."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528