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American Crystal Lockout: Ending a fight in God's house

Mark Froemke, a local official with the AFL-CIO and former worker at the American Crystal Sugar plant in East Grand Forks greets American Crystal president and CEO David Berg, left, and vice-president for administration Brian Ingulsrud,second from left at a dinner following a prayer service in United Lutheran Church Wednesday. Crystal board chairman Robert Green is seated at the right. Photo by Eric Hylden

There were prayers, hymns, scripture and some tears Wednesday during a worship service at United Lutheran Church in Grand Forks aimed at reconciliation in the long-running labor dispute between American Crystal Sugar Co. and its 1,300 locked-out union workers.

It was led by Lutheran bishops from the region, but all were welcome. About 120 attended, including sugar beet growers, union members and the top brass of American Crystal, kneeling together, in some cases, for prayer.

David Berg, president and CEO of Crystal and the company's chief negotiator, Vice President Brian Ingulsrud drove up from the corporate office in Moorhead, and were joined by Robert Green, the St. Thomas, N.D., grower who is the newly elected chairman of the board attended.

"We're here for the prayer service," Berg said, saying it wasn't the time to talk about the dispute. He later was one of about 15 people who came forward to kneel and pray with the two bishops and three pastors who led the service.

"We are looking at anything we can do to bring people together," Ingulsrud said, adding that the prayer services in Grand Forks this week offered a special opportunity for that.

Mark Froemke, president of the AFL-CIO's Western Minnesota Area Labor Council and on leave from working in the East Grand Forks Crystal plant, attended the prayer service Wednesday, as he had Sunday in Holy Family Catholic church.

"We really appreciate what the Lutherans are doing, just as we were very grateful for what the Catholic church did last Sunday," he said. "Hopefully, everybody can kind of take this Christmas spirit that comes around once a year to, hopefully, spur everybody to sit back down and to come to an agreement that works for all of us."

Real unity

"This is a gathering for the whole family of God, so all are welcome," the Rev. Peter Coen-Tuff, said in opening the service.

He was joined up front by Bishops Bill Rindy and Larry Wohlrabe, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Eastern North Dakota and Northwestern Minnesota synods, respectively, which represent about 27 percent of the region's population. The Rev. Gerard Braun of St. Michael's Catholic Church in Grand Forks and the Rev. Jeff Sandgren of Olivet Lutheran in Fargo -- where, coincidentally, Berg attends -- also read scripture and led prayers.

The idea was to bring real unity through the Christian church to a conflict that is painful for many, Rindy said after the service. "When I floated this idea, to union leaders and to David Berg, both sides, said, 'Yes, this is the right thing to do... This is what we need."

Rindy said his flock of 100,000 includes people on all sides of the dispute. He talked with the other clergymen before the service about the importance of not taking sides.

"We've got growers, union workers, truck drivers, shareholders, management," he said. "We don't find our unity in a union, or a grower's group or a company, but as the body of Christ. And I think the body of Christ can truly make a difference here."

The dispute is a big deal for the region, Rindy told the congregation.

"There's just something about this that doesn't seem very North Dakotan, that doesn't seem very Minnesotan, that doesn't seem very Scandinavian," he said. "We are all better than this."

Healing hands

The pastors read the famous verses from St. Paul's letter to the divided church at Corinth, about the importance of each part of the body to the whole, how the eye is not more important than the ear. How in the end, it's faith, hope and love that last.

Then the service came to a perhaps surprising end.

The five clergymen stood at the altar railing while the congregation sang "Just As I Am," and "Amazing Grace," and laid hands on any who came up to kneel for prayer.

Jan Bailey, who is locked out of her job at the East Grand Forks Crystal plant, walked up and knelt before Father Braun. Soon she had burst into tears, holding him while he comforted her and prayed.

Afterward Bailey, who came with her husband, Jim, and two of their grandchildren, was smiling through tears. "I've got to let go of the resentment and anger and the pain that I feel," she said when asked why she went up for prayer.

Did she let go?

No, she shook her head, then after a moment of reflecting, added: "The anger actually is gone."

They came, "hoping for something," Bailey said. ""I just want my job back."

Needing God

Carl Kroll, Argyle, Minn., has worked 38 years, full-time, at the Crystal plant in Drayton, N.D. He and his wife, Yvonne, drove down for the service and meal.

"Prayer is always good," he said. "We had Bible study at our church (Our Savior's Lutheran in Argyle) and I just told the pastor I think we need to go down to this."

Any extra help is welcome now, Kroll said. "I never expected (the lockout) to go this long. I wish it hadn't gone this far. Now the way they are treating us, it's getting on the bitter side of things."

Like others who worked in the two North Dakota Crystal plants, Kroll doesn't qualify for unemployment payments, as do those from the three Minnesota plants, because of different state laws.

It's led him to consider retirement, Kroll said. "I don't think I want to go back."

Joel Stola, a farmer from Beltrami, Minn., who grows beets for American Crystal, was one of several growers to attend.

"It certainly can't hurt to have the Lord involved in helping us whenever there is a problem," Stola said

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send email to