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Union president blasts 'greedy' American Crystal

GRAND FORKS - Frank Hurt ­didn't mince words during an appearance in Grand Forks on Thursday.

Hurt, the international president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, delivered a blistering critique of American Crystal Sugar Co. and big business during a speech at the North Dakota AFL-CIO state convention.

He said the nearly two-month-long lockout of 1,300 American Crystal union-represented workers by the company illustrates the current state of labor relations in the U.S.

Hurt decried the "greed" of American Crystal's management, saying the company has been very profitable but still tried to squeeze its union workforce during negotiations. He blamed the company for disrupting the way of life of Red River Valley residents and hurting the families of its locked-out workers.

American Crystal's management "has shown without a shadow of a doubt that they don't care about your families," Hurt told a standing-room-only crowd inside the banquet room at the GuestHouse International motel in downtown Grand Forks.

Brian Ingulsrud, American Crystal's vice president for administration, denied that the company's management is greedy or doesn't care about its workers and their families.

Following his speech, Hurt answered "of course" when asked by a reporter if the company was attempting to break the union.

"We want to get back to the table," Hurt said. "I don't think the company is ready to come back to the table yet."

No new negotiations have been scheduled between the company, union representatives and a federal mediator after no progress was made during talks more than a month ago at a Fargo hotel.

The company has stood firm, offering the same "final offer" that union members overwhelmingly rejected in a vote in late July before the lockout began.

Ingulsrud said the company's average wage and benefits package of $75,000 per employee and its final contract offer, which he said included generous annual wage increases, are fair.

"We want our employees on the job," Ingulsrud said. "That is why we offered them a very good package. We would prefer them to be on the job. Our offer still stands. Anytime they want to, they are free to vote on that and get back on the job where we want them to be."

Union representatives have not offered the company a full counter proposal but expressed a willingness to negotiate potential health insurance changes and substance abuse testing policy changes if the company dropped its controversial language changes that the union worries would erode job security and could lead to the contracting out of union jobs. The company denies that the wording would lead to the loss of union jobs.

Hurt didn't pull any punches. He prefaced his comments by telling the crowd that if there were any Republicans or tea party supporters present that they wouldn't like what he was about to say.

During his speech, Hurt compared the American Crystal grower-owned cooperative to greedy big business.

"Employers have lost their moral compass," Hurt said. "American corporations are selling America and American workers down the river."

He told the crowd that "elections matter" and implored them to demand more of politicians and think about their best interests when voting instead of getting "duped" by some Republican candidates.

Hurt, whose office is in Maryland, also called North Dakota "the reddest of red states," which was met with laughter from the crowd.

Hurt and other union speakers questioned why North Dakota law doesn't allow locked-out workers to collect unemployment benefits while Minnesota state law does.

"We know that people don't get unemployment when you're on strike," Hurt said during an interview. "In this state, they don't get benefits when you're locked out. It's not their fault they're locked out. But this state considers it a labor dispute."

Hurt said the international BCTGM union is in the process of organizing an effort to collect donations for the locked-out Crystal union members. He indicated that since North Dakota workers aren't receiving unemployment benefits that they would probably receive a larger share of the donations.

Ryan Schuster is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald