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Mike McFeely

MIKE MCFEELY: Crystal Sugar tells workers another labor dispute is a possibility

MOORHEAD, Minn. -- "Merry Christmas, American Crystal Sugar union employee, we're preparing to lock you out again if necessary."

Well, OK, maybe the Moorhead-based cooperative left out the holiday greetings part. But that was essentially the message Crystal Sugar workers received in a letter dated Nov. 30 and signed by the company's vice president of administration, Lisa Borgen.

In it, Borgen told workers the company proposed to meet with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union Local 167G for two days in December to negotiate a four-year extension to the current contract that runs through July 31, 2017. Crystal wanted to limit discussions to "annual wage increases; improvements to the pension plan; and, possibly a signing bonus."

"We are disappointed to report," Borgen wrote, "that the Union has refused our offer to meet."

The letter concludes: "We remain hopeful that no dispute will occur, but are left with no alternative but to begin to prepare for the possibility of a labor dispute as a result of the 2017 negotiations."

And enjoy your holidays!

Reached by phone Thursday, Borgen said the letter was simply a way to let employees know what's happening.

"We're very hopeful we will be able to meet and get everything resolved," she said. "At the same time, we want to be prepared for whatever might happen."

There is a history here, of course. Crystal Sugar and the union had an ugly lockout that lasted 22 months, from Aug. 1, 2011, to May 27, 2013, and ended a harmonious, mutually beneficial relationship that had lasted for decades. About 1,300 union employees were locked out when members refused to ratify a contract that gave a 13 percent raise over five years, but called for health benefit cuts and what the union considered major givebacks such as the loss of seniority rights.

The company never budged on its original offer and the union voted four times to reject it, finally accepting it after a large chunk of former Crystal workers had retired or found different jobs. Only about 400 of those originally locked out returned to work at Crystal factories in Moorhead, Crookston, and East Grand Forks, Minn., and Hillsboro and Drayton, N.D.

Adding to the acrimony was that while Crystal locked out local employees who'd offered to work during negotiations--some who'd been with the company for 30 years or more--it quickly replaced them with workers hired through a Twin Cities firm. Labor accused Crystal of union-busting; the company said the union wouldn't promise not to strike. Back and forth it went for nearly two years.

Communities were divided, friendships lost. In the end, Crystal and its 2,650 shareholders got their way and what remained of the union accepted the original offer.

The union views this early proposition and the ensuing letter as a threat, and a way to paint the employees as the bad guys for refusing to negotiate.

"It's not that we refuse to negotiate. We want to negotiate because we know we have to eventually," said Brad Olson, union vice president in Hillsboro. "But we feel there are other issues we need to talk about and to limit the talks to two days isn't going to give us enough time to talk about them. We kind of feel like this was sprung on us all of the sudden. We'll be happy to negotiate, but can we have six months to get our ducks in order?"

Olson said the union is concerned about continued increases in health insurance costs and the lack of importance placed on seniority when hiring for better, higher-paying jobs. He said the union would like to see specific numbers when it comes to raises, bonuses and pension-plan improvements.

Crystal Sugar is playing its hand early and strongly, which is interesting. After losing so many workers during the first lockout and with so many jobs open in the Fargo-Moorhead area, you wonder how long employees will stick with the company if they feel threatened. It's a different job market than the one that existed in 2011.

A number of employees I talked with are thinking exactly that. The language in the first two paragraphs of the letter made them feel that way.

"During the 22 months of the lockout, employees were not able to work," reads part of the first paragraph. "During this 22 month period the Company continued to operate the factories."

The second paragraph concludes: "This offer to negotiate early for a contract extension was to ensure labor peace, which would also ensure employees continuing to work and earn pay and benefits."

Now go enjoy your holidays.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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