Sugar Beet Lockout: Dispute Continues to Hurt Workers

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.

Comments are closed.