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Rally puts American Crystal dispute in public spotlight

MOORHEAD - Hundreds of union workers and their supporters marched through downtown Moorhead on Thursday, putting the public spotlight on a lockout by American Crystal Sugar Co.

An American Crystal spokesman said the company feels it offered workers a fair contract and the offer remains open if workers want it.

The union voted down the proposal July 30, and the union contract with the company expired the next day.

The company locked out union workers and some non-union employees Aug. 1 and brought in replacement workers to run Minnesota plants in East Grand Forks, Crookston and Moorhead and North Dakota plants in Drayton and Hillsboro.

Many of those attending Thursday's rally said they want to work, but feel the company's latest offer was unacceptable.

ACS Union Worker Protes

Among those showing support for the union Thursday were members of unions at the University of Minnesota and the University of North Dakota.

August Nimtz, a political science professor at the U of M, said he felt it was important to back workers at a time when companies across the country may be viewing the nation's high unemployment rate as an opportunity to change employment structures.

Teresa Joppa, staff attorney for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 65, joined the rally to show solidarity with the sugar workers.

Joppa said it was unusual to see a lockout in this part of the country, but she was hopeful workers could return to their jobs soon.

Danielle Dirkes and Brady Peck, both union workers at American Crystal's Moorhead plant, said they are eager to return to work to support their families.

Dirkes has a 5-year-old son. Peck has two boys, 7 and 11 years old.

"I work for my kids and my family," Peck said.

Brian Ingulsrud, vice president of administration at American Crystal, said the company wants workers back, too.

"We want our employees on the job," he said.

Ingulsrud said the company believes its offer of a 17 percent wage increase, on top of a wage and benefit package that already totals $75,000, was a fair proposal.

He said the proposed contract would increase worker pensions and "in no way" threaten job security.

Ingulsrud said workers, who currently are not paying any premium toward their health care, are being asked to pay $24 a month for single coverage and $73 a month for family coverage.

Even with those costs added, workers would still take home $15,000 more in pay over five years, according to Ingulsrud, who said the offer stands if workers change their minds.

Traffic was stopped in Moorhead and Fargo as a human train of union workers and supporters wound its way from the Moorhead Center Mall to the Veterans Memorial Bridge on Main Avenue.

Moorhead Police Sgt. Deric Swenson said union officials notified police days ago of their plans, allowing plenty of time to set up traffic control.

Police on both sides of the river reported no major problems.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555