Union Sugar Beet Workers Stand Up to Stop Slide

By Don Morrison
On the eastern side of the state, the nation’s largest sugar beet processor has locked out 1,300 workers in a dispute that could impact wage levels in the region. American Crystal Sugar Co. broke off negotiations with the workers’ union July 28 with a “final offer” that included new
contract language which union members say would allow the company to destroy the union. Union members voted by 96 percent to reject that proposal.

The company locked out the workers when their contract expired at midnight
July 31 and brought in out-of-state replacement workers.

At the time the Prairie Independent published (September 7), no talks were
scheduled. Representatives of the local Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union say they are willing to return to the negotiating table. American Crystal Sugar Vice President for Administration Brian Ingulsud said the company will come to the table when the federal mediator asks them to.

The contract language changes union members object to concern replacing union workers and outsourcing. The company says those change will not allow it to subcontract work already done by union employees that would result in layoffs.  Local union representatives say other changes take away the voice workers currently have in determining how that process is defined and implemented. In effect, the changes will take away the workers voice. That is one reason union members maintain the company is out to break the union.

Ingulsrud said the company wants “changes that make sense in the modern business world.” To workers that means removing the workers’ voice and making workers pay a larger share of benefits while the company is making record profits and giving a 109 percent increase in compensation to the American Crystal President and CEO.

Mark Froemke, a local union representative, said “corporations have become much larger and more powerful. The loss of union density in America and the loss of the middle class give the corporate mentality all the more reason to try to [break the unions]. This will drive down wages, including wages in Bismarck.

“When a corporation has the same rights as a person, what does that say?” Froemke said.

“Look at politics. The government is much more pro-company than it was 30 years ago. The laws today are so bent to the corporate elite that it is hard to stand up to them.” To Froemke, what is happening at American Crystal is “another example of corporate greed that is destroying workers ability to take care of their families.”

The company claims that the contract it offered before it broke off negotiations gave workers a 17 percent wage increase. Union representatives say that is inaccurate and misleading citing a 2,000 signing bonus that would not carry over to future years and is no longer available, plus increases in employee out-of-pocket benefit costs. Company VP Ingulsrud acknowledged those are not in the company’s increase figure.

Steve Walsh, assistant head steward for local 167G, BCTGM, said at this point the dispute is about the contractlanguage, not the wages and benefits. He and Froemke said this is a critical time for workers. If companies are able to break the union, then employees will not have a voice.

Froemke said this effort is important to “stop the slide in wages. The company needs to come back and negotiate in a fair and sincere manner. Both sides have to work towards a company. hopefully, the farmers who own the company will raise their voice to management to be fair. The farmers realize the company is risking their assets by having transient workers destroying their equipment in the factory and not producing good sugar, ruining their reputation, putting their investment at great risk. There is no reason for this to happen.”

“It is hard to see an honorable farmer cooperative like American Crystal allowing its management to damage its name and reputation,” he said.

There has been public pressure on the company to return to the negotiating table.  The East Grand Forks City Council passed a unanimous resolution and the Grand Forks mayor and three city council members wrote letters to the company.

[Photo Wes Peck]

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