Crystal union supporters join anti-lockout bill debate
ST. PAUL -- A lockout of 1,300 workers in the Red River Valley has become evidence for Minnesota Legislature Democrats as they draw up bills to restrict the management practice.
Becki Jacobson of Moorhead, locked out in 2011 after 30 years at Moorhead-based American Crystal Sugar Co., said she likes the idea of forcing businesses that establish lockouts to pay workers' unemployment insurance claims. "They are the ones who put me out of a job."
Jacobson reacted Wednesday night after testifying to the Minnesota House Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee.
"Medical bills are mounting up that I am unable to pay," she said, adding that she probably will be forced to abandon five medicines she takes for depression.
She was joined by Moorhead teacher Jeff Offutt and Moorhead City Council member Heidi Durand at the committee hearing, which also included witnesses telling about the impact of the recently settled National Hockey League lockout and two Twin Cities' orchestra lockouts.
Unlike a worker strike, a lockout is when an organization's management locks out union workers, often over pay disputes.
Committee Chairman Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, said in an interview that he plans two lockout provisions in bills still being written.
One would require organizations that lock out employees to pay unemployment insurance through the lockout's duration. The other would restrict lockouts by organizations receiving state funds.
Most at the hearing opposed the lockout and no one from American Crystal's management appeared. Union leaders organized the Moorhead testimony and Atkins said he did not issue invitations to the meeting.
American Crystal officials say that when called to the negotiating table by a federal mediator, the company engaged the union in good faith, and it has provided replacement workers the same pay and benefits the union rejected.
Atkins' committee heard Durand, a Minnesota State Community and Technical College instructor, say "the social fabric has been weakened" in Moorhead.
She said the contract the employees worked under would not allow them to strike during sugar beet harvest, but allowed management to lock out workers.
Costs to communities along the Red River and elsewhere in Minnesota, she said, include paying unemployment insurance for locked out workers, higher taxes to cover health care for those who lost coverage but were forced to seek emergency room care, increased substance abuse and overcrowded homeless shelters.
"It is having a negative effect on business and commerce in the Red River Valley," she added.
Offutt said children also are feeling the impact.
"It gives kids a lot to think about," the eighth-grade world history teacher said.
"I understand it is somebody's job to watch the bottom line..." he said, "but what about the kids?"
After listening to testimony about the four lockouts, Atkins said: "This has been a challenge to listen to. ... There were tears in people's eyes."
The chairman called lockouts an "epidemic" across the country.
Committee members were not given a chance to ask questions Wednesday, but that likely will come after anti-lockout bills are introduced.