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Published September 12, 2011, 04:03 AM

American Crystal loses experience, dependability without union workers

CROOKSTON, Minn. — Dear Crystal sugar beet growers: Last year, if asked what a lock-out was, I’d have said “Never heard of it.”

By: Cindy Kolling,

CROOKSTON, Minn. — Dear Crystal sugar beet growers: Last year, if asked what a lock-out was, I’d have said “Never heard of it.”

Today, I am locked out of American Crystal Sugar Co. with about 1,300 others. It’s been more than a month. Wham. I don’t get it. Why would you pay more money to less- qualified people, unless you want to break the union?

I am part of the harvest crew. To the Crystal guys, I am seasonal riff-raff. “Christmas help,” my counterpart calls us. Call us whatever you wish, but we are union. I am a yard foreperson at the Crookston, Minn., beet piling yard. I have worked 18 harvests. My counterpart on the opposite shift is on about year 26.

We work seven days a week, 12 hours a day — hard, fast, heavy, dirty, thankless work. Our crews (totaling more than a hundred workers) pile the beets for storage so they can be processed in the factory through the winter.

Experience matters

Piling beets takes practice. Properly piled beets are a big part of avoiding rotting beets. Much of my crew has been with me for a dozen years. The well-trained piler machine operators have crews of capable, equally experienced helpers. They work on the same machinery and with largely the same crews season after season.

They know their stuff and they know how to get the job done. Most of the crew is union (which translates now to “locked out”). The scale house workers are union (locked out). The skidsteer operators who set deep-freeze culverts in impossibly tight places in record time — union; (locked out). The payloader operators, sample bag collectors, mechanic foremen, all union; all experienced and all locked out.

To anyone who has seen a piling factory location yard during harvest, you know it’s a happening place. Why would you choose pure chaos over a smooth-running operation filled with safe, dependable, experienced people?

When beet harvest season approaches, we set aside time to be available when the company needs us. We come, we work, we get it done. None of us get benefits such as health insurance or paid vacation. We want our union for basic humanity reasons. We want our union contract to assure that we will be called back each season to our job. We want to know that somebody is bargaining for all of us. We want somebody to watch our backs in a not-always-so-pleasant work world.

Most of the workers live near here. We want to see our communities thrive. Your money gets spent here. We’re not spending money now.

Upper management at Crystal says they’ll get the harvest in. Maybe. You probably can get the pilers to run, but most likely not efficiently or properly. Maybe not for long. Maybe you’ll get some trucks dumped, but how efficiently and safely? How many damaged trucks and pilers? How many loader or skidsteer incidents? How many stuck trucks holding up the show? How many bad loads get piled, how much dirt, how much trash, how much wasted space, how much spoilage?

Let’s not even think about injuries to workers caused by inexperience or improperly maintained equipment. Who will maintain the equipment? It takes a lot of time around that equipment to even know it’s broken, much less how to fix it. Parts are homemade, mix-and-match equipment — each piece has its own weaknesses. The mechanic crew is union: locked out. Electrical: union. Welders: union, locked out. How about the expensive deep-freeze storage systems? We had near-perfect storage on a huge beet crop last year. Granted, the weather was good and some good minds among agriculturists kept beets coming in good condition. But did the extra 10 percent that we always give to do our best job make a difference? Surely you don’t actually think we’d give that extra 10 percent to you now.

But with those beets to dig and your other harvest costs to pay, can you afford to take the chance on an undersized, unskilled, untrained piling work force? The agriculturists now are in the factories — sweeping floors and who knows what — to replace locked-out union factory workers. The agriculturists can’t do their own jobs because they are doing locked-out union workers’ jobs. They can’t be out there to help you get the best out of your beets.

Maybe you’ll luck out and get the harvest in before these Sun Belt replacements flee for warmer weather. I’ve seen more cold, rainy, muddy seasons than not, so, statistically, I’m betting not. We still have a 100 percent effort to put out, even if you don’t get that extra 10 percent, so don’t blow it, growers. Don’t run off the best thing American Crystal Sugar Co. has ever had: an experienced, dependable, capable, hardy harvest work force.

Union: Stay together

Attention express workers not yet in the union and other Crystal employees: You don’t have to work for the company until the dispute is settled satisfactorily.

You may lose some pay now, but if you let American Crystal Sugar break the union, you will lose a lot more then. Your pay scale follows the union contract. Your rehire each season is based on union protocol. The company may threaten you with being fired, but without a union, they can do that any time anyway.

Right now, without a union negotiating wages for you, you are worth whatever the company wants to pay you (Minimum wage is $7.50 per hour.) You know how hard your job is and how hard you work; it is this union that has negotiated a better wage for you. (Note that piling crews are not well paid per hour. It’s the long, tough hours we work that add up.) You know what it’s like to work 12 hard hours one day and be sent home the next day cold and wet with just two hours of work because of rain. Without a union contract, labor laws only would guarantee overtime pay after a 40-hour work week. If you think for one second that Crystal Sugar is paying you after-hours overtime on those long days out of the goodness of their hearts, think again. That’s your union fighting on your behalf. So, you see, even those who are not actually in the union are benefiting, if by association and related jobs. The outstation piling sites are nonunion. The company might think it can pile all its beets while locking us out, I don’t think so. I think you workers know where to stand.

I say to those Crystal employees who work at those stations, or are called by Express Personnel to work there: Don’t go. Realize where your bread is buttered and do not go. Your pay and hours are based on union contract precedence. Honor that. Stay on the right side of the lockout line. We are locked out and cannot work in what appears to be a long-planned management strategy to break the union. You need to choose and take a stand. Make the right decision and do it with pride.

Stop by union headquarters, and ask what you can do to help. Tell them that you stand on the side of locked-out workers and the union who has supported you. (On Main Street in Crookston, and there’ll be one set up in each factory town).

In the coming days, we are likely to hear much about the woes of the beet farmer: the risk, the stress and how they are all our friends. You know you have worked hard, and they have not shared their good years with us. We are not overpaid for what we do. In 18 years, only once has anybody come by and said, “thank you.” Now they have locked us out of our jobs.

When I think of the huge investment in those growers’ fields, and then listen to the upper management guys with the expensive shoes talk, I have to wonder: Who does own this company?

Stand by me and the rest of the locked-out union harvest crew until this is settled satisfactorily. Don’t let this union break. No union, no harvest.

Best wishes to the rest of the Red River Valley. Without the union workers in your communities, whatever you do will be jeopardized. You do not want to see this union gone. These workers spend money with you.

Stop at union headquarters and ask for a sign for your business window. Show your support. Write to your government representatives.

In this day, it is critical that somebody is there on behalf of those doing the actual work in these large companies.

American Crystal Sugar Co. is doing a bad thing this time. I think the growers maybe have been caught unaware, trusting in their management team, advised by them and temporary hiring firms. How much will you lose if it all ends?

Editor’s Note: Kolling is a union beet piling yard supervisory foreman and currently is locked out.

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