American Crystal Sugar’s North Dakota workers are still being denied unemployment compensation, even though the company’s Iowa and Minnesota workers have been granted benefits after being locked out by the company.
So far, North Dakota administrative officials have upheld the denial and legislators refused to allow the issue to be discussed at the Special Session in early November. Workers and their supporters say they will continue to try to reverse the North Dakota interpretation, while they also try to reopen contract negotiations with the company.
Minnesota law clearly states that workers in this situation are supposed to receive unemployment compensation. Laws in Iowa and North Dakota are similar, but are not as specific as Minnesota’s law. Still, Iowa sided with the workers, but North Dakota state officials sided with the company and denied benefits to North Dakota’s workers.
At issue is whether the lockout is a “layoff” or is limited to a “labor dispute.” In late July, American Crystal Sugar officials unilaterally broke off contract negotiations. The company issued an ultimatum to approve a contract, which workers viewed as a “break the union” tactic, and the workers overwhelmingly rejected it. Normally, in a labor dispute employees work under a previous contract while negotiations continue. But ACS took a rare maneuver and locked out 1,300 workers, including 408 in North Dakota.
John Riske, president of the local union, said workers view the lockout as a layoff because workers are willing to work while negotiations continue.
A t the Special Session of the North Dakota Legislative Assembly, Sen. Tim Mathern (DNPL-Fargo) proposed a bill to specifically allow for benefits in this situation. Rep. Lee Kaldor (DNPL-Mayville) and Sen. Phil Murphy (DNPL-Portland) helped make the case, but the Republican dominated committee voted on party lines against allowing the bill to be introduced.
Kaldor said allowing workers to work while new contracts are negotiated has been the practice at ACS for years. He said the workers “have the right to establish a bargain agreement.”
About 150 ACS workers and their supporters rallied in the State Capitol on November 9 to support legislative action. While they were in Bismarck, the locked out workers tried twice to talk with Gov. Jack Dalyrmple, but they were told he “was too busy.”
R iskey said, “ The m ajority Republican Party legislators are for the business owners and they aren’t willing to listen to the rank and file people.” He said support came instead from Democratic-NPL legislators, who he praised for their hard work on behalf of the locked out workers.
Requests to talk about this story with Rep. Al Carlson (R-Fargo). House majority leader, and ACS Vice President Brian F. Ingulsrud were not answered.
Following the session, Kaldor,, Murphy, and Sen. Mac Schneider (DNPL-Grand Forks) drafted a petition to Darren Brostrom, Director of Unemployment Insurance at Job Service North Dakota. The petition asks Brostrom to reonsider and reverse his decision to deny unemployment benefits for locked out ACS workers. It makes the case that unemployment benefit premiums have already been paid for this situation, but in this case, workers are not receiving the benefits. Brostrom has not officially responded to the petition.
Locked out workers are facing economic hardship after more than four months without work at the sugar beet plants and without unemployment compensation.
Riske said that because “administrative appeals of the ruling were turned down, the union is in the process of filing in district court.” He said this is not simply an isolated ruling by Job Service North Dakota; it speaks more to the way North Dakota elected officials feel about working people.
American Crystal Sugar and its workers have a large impact on the economy in the Red River Valley. Over many years, the public has been asked to support the sugar beet processing industry and ACS is a major benefactor of U.S. policies that protect it from competition. While the company locks out its workers, many of whom have worked for ACS 20 years or more, the company’s top management recently has received income increases ranging from 42 percent to 109 percent.
During the past three years, ACS president and CEO David A. Berg’s income increased from $946,755 to $1,975,488, up 109 percent; Chief Operating Officer Joseph J. Talley from $637,989 to $908,586, up 42 percent; Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Thomas S. Astrup $426,617 to $736,139, up 73 percent; and Vice President, Administration Brian F. Ingulsrud $339,934 to $699,971, up 75 percent.