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Supporters of sugar workers take message to aisles

Front of union supporters leaflets about American Crystal. Special to The Forum

GRAND FORKS - Shoppers have begun to find leaflets supporting locked-out American Crystal Sugar Co. workers tucked next to the company's products on local grocery store shelves.

The multi-color fliers are folded in half, carry the words "consumer alert" and proclaim that American Crystal Sugar is "killing the American Dream." The handouts contain QR codes that can be scanned by smartphones and include a link directing readers to a page on the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union's website.

Fliers are also showing up on windshields in the parking lot of the Moorhead Hornbacher's store, but so far there have been no customer complaints, said Joe Moreno, store super­visor.

For now, he said, the store will simply monitor the situation.

Doug Driscoll, director of operations of the Hugo's regional chain of supermarkets, said some customers have complained about the leaflets, which have been found at some Hugo's stores. Driscoll said the papers are being placed between bags of American Crystal Sugar by union supporters, not store employees.

He said when employees find the leaflets, they are removed and discarded. Driscoll said Hugo's has a no-solicitation policy in its stores and on its property.

The leaflets encourage shoppers to sign an online petition in support of union workers, buy sugar products from companies that "respect their workforce," and spread the word.

The handouts, which feature a crossed-out representation of American's Crystal's company logo, include a list of food companies that use Crystal Sugar in their products as well as store-brand sugars that include Crystal Sugar.

"It's part of our union campaign with our friends and allies," local union spokesman Mark Froemke said. "We're doing this to let people know what Crystal Sugar is doing."

Froemke stopped short of calling the effort a boycott, saying it was merely a way to inform consumers and let them make up their own minds.

"We're not calling for a boycott as such," Froemke said. "But we are giving people the facts, and they can make their own determination of the best road to take."

Brian Ingulsrud, American Crystal's vice president for administration, said he has heard about the leafleting.

"We're always concerned about consumer perceptions about us and our brand," he said. "But I don't think that will have a negative impact on us and our brand."

Ingulsrud questioned the effectiveness of any local boycott. He said American Crystal-branded sugar makes up a small percentage of the company's sales. Much of the company's sugar is used in other food companies' products or in store-brand sugar, he said. Since products that include Crystal Sugar are distributed nationally, Ingulsrud said, local sales make up a small amount of the company's overall sales.

The lockout has stretched into its eighth week with no end in sight. No negotiations have been scheduled after talks between the two sides and a federal mediator in late August failed to yield any progress.

Ingulsrud said the company is willing to return to the negotiating table when prompted by the mediator. He said the company hasn't changed its position and is still offering the same "final offer" that 96 percent of union members voted down in late July. However, the current offer wouldn't include a $2,000 "signing bonus" for workers that the company had offered if the contract was approved by Aug. 1.

"We're still very interested in having our employees back at work," Ingulsrud said. "Our offer remains on the table. It's a good one."

The company says its offer would provide an average 4 percent wage increase for workers in the first year, followed by annual wage increases of 3 percent in the second year and 2 percent in each of the final three years of the proposed contract. Union supporters take issue with some of the company's math, are hesitant to agree to less favorable health insurance coverage currently provided to non-union employees and say new wording in regard to contracting out work would erode job security, a claim the company denies.

After union employees rejected the company's contract offer and the previous union contract expired on July 31, the company locked out about 1,300 union workers and some non-union workers in union-represented positions at the company's five sugar beet processing plants in the Red River Valley and two other sites in Minnesota and Iowa. The company has brought in replacement workers contracted through Minnetonka, Minn.-based Strom Engineering, as well as additional security personnel.

Union members have been picketing 24 hours a day outside the company's plants since the lockout began.

Froemke, the union representative, said the public has been supportive of the locked-out workers and he looks forward to the day when the workers can return to their jobs. He said he hopes the company and union can sit down and agree to a contract that will be fair to the workers, the company and the growers in the cooperative.

Ryan Schuster writes for the Grand Forks Herald