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Published August 25, 2011, 11:49 AM

American Crystal talks on

GRAND FORKS - American Crystal Sugar Co. and its labor union have agreed to come to the table today at the request of a federal mediator, three weeks into the company's lockout, in the wake of a union vote to reject the company's contract proposal.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

GRAND FORKS - American Crystal Sugar Co. and its labor union have agreed to come to the table today at the request of a federal mediator, three weeks into the company's lockout, in the wake of a union vote to reject the company's contract proposal.

Mark Froemke, a member of the union bargaining committee on leave with the AFL-CIO of Minnesota, confirmed Wednesday that the meeting was to take place, but declined to discuss the time and location.

"The federal mediator asked for both sides to come together. It is something that was in the works. The company has decided that (today) is a good day to sit down and talk."

Brian Ingulsrud, American Crystal's vice president of administration, who is the spokesman for the company on the labor issue, confirmed that the meeting would take place.

He said Jeanne Frank of the U.S. Mediation and Conciliation Service had asked neither side to talk about it, but referred all questions to her. She did not answer phone or email messages.

Ingulsrud declined to say whether it was an actual negotiation, or only a meeting to determine whether negotiations would be useful.

Union picketers marched at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks on Wednesday, thinking that Crystal's board of directors meeting would be held there. A Crystal official said the board meeting had been moved to the company's headquarters in Moorhead. It's unclear whether the regularly scheduled board meeting at all addressed the labor issues.

Froemke called the meeting, "hopefully, the beginning of a process."

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., a champion of the sugar industry as ranking member on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, said it is "good news" that the two sides are planning to meet. He had not contacted the Federal Mediation and Conciliation, but didn't know whether Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., may have.

"What we've been encouraging is that they get back to the table and get this stuff worked out," Peterson said, of his own efforts. He said nothing could get resolved if the two sides weren't talking.

Peterson said he's been talking to company board members, union people and management to encourage a resolution. Some of those conversations were as late as Tuesday.

Peterson said it's difficult for outsiders to really know the key issues in the matter. "From what I can tell is the issue is on management having control over who gets what job, and being able to hire outside people," he said. He had encouraged the union to come up some language that allows management its needed flexibility but also "tighten" what the union is concerned about.

He said the company has claimed it takes too long - as much as two weeks - to make decisions because of needed union negotiations. The union, on the other hand, says 95 percent of the issues are resolved "in 15 minutes," Peterson said, acknowledging it is difficult to judge. He said he thought the union was planning to "come forward with some changes" as of Wednesday morning.

Peterson said some growers had been calling him "worried this (labor issue) would jeopardize authorization of the (federal) farm bill," which is coming up in 2012. "Nothing like that has happened so far," Peterson said. "As long as we get this resolved in the next month or two I don't think that'll be a problem. If it drags on into the winter, it could be a problem."

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said he has tried not to interfere with the negotiating process and did not contact the federal mediator to urge the resumption of talks. But he said he's talked to American Crystal President David Berg and others, including Froemke, to urge reconciliation.

"It's such an important industry to Minnesota, and to the (Red River) Valley, and the health and vitality of communities. It's important, as a senator, that I pay real attention."

He had written an opinion piece published in the Grand Forks Herald on Wednesday that talked about his worry that there was a "real danger in fraying the fabric of this relationship that, to me, had been sort of a model one, of ag and business and labor working together as partners."

He said he's tried to keep his input more on a personal level; that "I felt I was watching something bad happen that didn't need to happen."

Franken said it's his impression there may be movement from both sides on the issues. "I think that's why you come to the table," he said.

Scott Stofferahn, state staff director for Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said the senator had not intervened with the federal mediator and emphasized he is "good friends with both American Crystal and the union." He said the senator has received "briefings" from both sides, and said it is "good news that the talks are going to occur."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., also a member or the Senate Agriculture Committee, was not immediately available for comment.

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