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American Crystal has no plans to change offer to union

MOORHEAD - With the price of its 10-month-old lockout falling by the day and thousands of workers seeking jobs under the terms rejected by union employees, American Crystal Sugar has no plans - and little incentive - to budge from the contract offer it's had on the table since last fall.

"There is essentially no willingness to bend from that at all," said David Berg, the company's president and chief executive, in an interview Thursday. "They (growers) want us to sit on the contract."

As the company swaps pricey out-of-state replacement workers with new local and regional hires, it's a position the company says it can afford to take.

It has made 700 such hires to date. Berg said a small number of those are people who have crossed union lines.

He also said the overwhelming response to the company's posting for those jobs has strengthened its case that the last offer to the union was a fair one. He said 7,000 people applied for the 1,300 jobs vacated by locked-out employees, attracted by the same terms the union voted down overwhelmingly.

Joe Talley, Crystal's vice president of finance, said the more economical hires are taking the financial sting out of the lockout.

"There is a financial reason to settle, and it's getting smaller every day," he said, adding that the company expects costs to fall to pre-lockout levels within a year.

The union, meanwhile, says the situation isn't nearly so rosy. John Riskey, a union spokesman, said many of the new hires - whom Berg praised as strong employees - haven't panned out, and that the company is still hurting for skilled workers in many areas.

"They haven't been getting the ones they need," he said, adding that the company has solicited locked-out workers with desirable skills to cross the picket line.

He acknowledged that a handful of people have crossed the line, but said it's been "very few." He also said maintenance workers at Crystal factories have described the facilities as "a total disaster."

"If they want to get the factories ready to go to be an efficient company like they need to be, there's a lot of work to be done," he said.

The new hires aren't represented by a union. By law, they're not permanent replacements, and it's still unclear what will happen to them if and when the lockout ends.

That's because it's not clear how many union employees will come back to work. Berg said a "significant" but unspecified number of union employees have formally retired, and others have simply left for other jobs.

He said the company still wants to resolve the lockout and bring union employees back into the fold.

"There are tremendous people who've worked for American Crystal for many years, and if they're going to be part of our future, that'd be a great result," he said.

The lockout has no expiration date or automatic end point. The company and the union will meet June 8, their first meeting since February. The union has said it will make a new offer at the meeting.

Riskey said progress needs to be made to end hardship in affected communities.

"We need to get something done when we get together," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502