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Published August 16, 2011, 11:22 AM

Few Crystal farmers speak on lockout

FARGO, N.D. — Union employees at American Crystal Sugar Co. continue to be locked out of five Red River Valley beet plants because of an impasse over a labor contract. No new talks were scheduled at mid-week.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Union employees at American Crystal Sugar Co. continue to be locked out of five Red River Valley beet plants because of an impasse over a labor contract. No new talks were scheduled at mid-week.

Rhetoric on the issue has been flowing into newspaper opinion pages and other venues, but with relatively few on-the-record comments from farmer-owners.

Aug. 10, Bill Hejl, of Amenia, N.D., wrote a letter that was published in area newspapers. A farmer-shareholder, Hejl was responding to another letter that had asked Crystal’s grower/owners to end the company lockout. Hejl described the action as necessary.

The newspapers described Hejl simply as a sugar beet farmer. They didn’t mention he is on the board of directors of the company, which sets policies by which company management negotiates labor contracts. He also is a former president of the World Association of Beet and Cane Growers and one of the Crystal growers often associated with North Dakota’s Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and former Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D. In an interview, Hejl said he’s likely to support “anybody who supports sugar.”

Hejl says in the letter: “The farmers who own American Crystal Sugar Company Cooperative thought long and hard about the very difficult lockout decision, and we understand and support it since we have $400 million to $500 million invested in the crop waiting to be harvested. Risking this investment by failing to have workers in place to process this year’s crop would be a poor decision for us, our cooperative and its employees.

“For the long term, we also know that changes must be made in the company’s labor contracts to make sure our farmer-owned cooperative can compete. Yes, compete,” he writes.

Hejl noted that there are no subsidies paid to sugar growers in the United States. “We compete within our market like everyone else — by managing our costs.” He concluded that “double-digit pay increases and pension contributions” amounted to a “good offer” for workers, and noted that negotiations “happen at the negotiating table, not in the media.”

Hejl declines to elaborate on his letter but says he’s talked “a few people” among farmer shareholders, all who generally agree with him, but acknowledged he couldn’t say whether the majority agree with him.

Details of offer

American Crystal’s “final offer” included double-digit pay increases across several years, but there is no double-digit base salary increase in any year. The offer includes an average 4 percent increase in the first year, with a $2,000 one-time bonus. That’s followed by annual percentage increases of 3, 2, 2, and 2 percentage points. The previous contract had offered 2 percent annual pay increases.

Mark Froemke is an official with the AFL-CIO of Minnesota. He’s been on leave for several years from his work from American Crystal to take the union position, and is part of the negotiating team for the contract. The Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco and Grain Millers Union in which the company’s workers are members are associated with the national AFL-CIO.

Froemke says “until this situation” he’d counted Hejl as “a friend” to labor. “I was stunned by him repeating the company line” in the letter, Froemke says. Hejl said he still considers Froemke a friend.

Froemke emphasized that pay levels aren’t as big an issue as contract language that union officials have said allows the company to replace union workers with non-union workers more easily. He says Crystal officials have said some of this language is “outdated” but argues that the company is enjoying record profits that were generated under these same conditions.

“We’ve heard farmers being upset about this,” Froemke says. “But the farmers I’ve been dealing with have been pretty closed-lipped, and sitting on their hands. Unfortunately, sometimes when there’s a difficult situation, sometimes good people have a faint heart. They don’t know what to do and they sit and watch. Too many good farmers and too many good citizens are watching, vs. grabbing control of their company.”

He says BCTGM union counterparts at Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D., “evergreened” their contract, extending it for two years with the same language and salary increases — 2 percent per year for two years.

Holdout expected?

Froemke says he expects the company to “hold us out as long as possible.” He declines to speculate on whether the two sides ultimately might agree in time for the union labor to return to their posts before the full-scale harvest begins.

Pre-pile harvest is scheduled to start Aug. 30, but final adjustments still were being made Aug. 11.. The full-scale harvest starts Oct. 1, when farmers start piling beets, 24 hours a day. He says the jobs are technical and the union labor force produces sugar at a “high rate and a high quality.” Asked whether replacement workers he describes as “transient” workers will be able to match the performance of experienced union workers, Froemke said, “My opinion, of course, is no.”

Union officials had renewed their request with federal mediators to request that the company restart labor talks. If history is a guide, Froemke expects the company will show up at the table, but says it is unclear whether they will be “serious about coming to an agreement.”

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