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Conrad: Crystal lockout affects sugar program

"This labor dispute is a problem, this really creates headaches," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., when asked about the impact of the American Crystal Sugar Co. labor dispute on the sugar program.

Conrad, a senior member of the Senate's Agriculture Committee, today urged the company and the union representing its locked out workers to return to negotiations.

He's also recently warned of potential problems that extended labor strife could cause in formulating a new federal farm bill when the current bill expires in 2012, something he said he's made clear to both sides.

Other lawmakers and area officials also urged both sides to return to negotiations, worried about the impact on the community, the economy and workers' families.

On Tuesday, union workers voted by a 90 percent majority to oppose the latest contract proposal from American Crystal, extending the lockout ongoing since Aug. 1 and affecting some 1,300 workers.

The company has plants in East Grand Forks; Crookston; Drayton, N.D.; Moorhead; and Hillsboro, N.D.

Congressional members

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., released a statement today, saying "We encourage both labor and management to continue negotiations and reach a settlement that's acceptable to both parties."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., released a joint statement, saying "Families and communities across the Red River Valley have felt the impact of this lockout. We continue to urge both Crystal Sugar management and workers to come together at the negotiating table to work out an agreement that allows workers to return to their jobs as soon as possible. American Crystal and these jobs are very important to the region."

Sugar program

"It probably doesn't do any good for me to enter into that (right or wrong) discussion publicly, but I've indicated what I believe," Sen. Conrad said. "This dispute is not helpful to us getting a (farm bill) result here. This is hard enough without this."

He said the "company needs to think long and hard about the consequences, about the implications of their strategy."

The sugar program is billed as a no-cost program. It is not an obvious farm bill target from a budgetary standpoint, according to other analysts. But the program has philosophical opponents because it keeps domestic sugar prices relatively higher than they otherwise would be through supply control and import quotas.

The justification is that U.S. sugar would compete with "world price" sugar, produced at lower labor costs or with subsidies from some foreign producers.

Impact on families

In East Grand Forks, Mayor Lynn Stauss offered support for the families involved.

"We are in hopes that this will work out between the two parties," he said. "It's important for the community and surrounding area, and most importantly, the families that rely on this income. It's important for them to get on with their lives. We haven't taken a stand either way. We remain neutral in that aspect, but we certainly hope for resolution."

Although he can't say how much being out of work has impacted local workers and their families, he said he knows it has had an effect. "I don't have any evidence of that, but it seems like common sense when a person is out of work for this long, it creates some emotional stress for those families."


"It's in everybody's best interest to get this resolved," said Chamber President Barry Wilfahrt. "We're hopeful the two sides can get together as soon as possible. We look forward to a long and prosperous relationship with the sugar industry in the Red River Valley."

Ralph Kingsbury, a consultant and Herald business columnist, said he's more concerned about the impact of unemployed workers on smaller towns.

"Obviously when you get to a small town, Drayton, Hillsboro and Crookston, it is significant," he said. "When you get to Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, it isn't that many of the total employees of the city."

He wonders how workers are faring.

"It has to have hurt them," he said. "Some of those people have to be working to make up for it. I'm not sure how much they are really short. I'm not so surprised that the vote was to turn it down, but to be 90 percent, they can't be hurting that badly."

Reach Bieri at (701) 780-1118; (800) 477-6572, ext. 118; or send email to