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Published October 03, 2011, 07:46 PM

Few growers share views on lockout support

FARGO, N.D. — As American Crystal Sugar Co. growers shifted into high gear Oct. 1 to lift the 2011 crop 24 hours a day, the company’s union workers still are standing on the outside, going into the third month of a labor lockout.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — As American Crystal Sugar Co. growers shifted into high gear Oct. 1 to lift the 2011 crop 24 hours a day, the company’s union workers still are standing on the outside, going into the third month of a labor lockout.

What do the growers think about it?

Apparently, many — perhaps a majority — are fine with the way their company has prepared for a lockout of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union workers. Few will talk about it.

Agweek attempted to contact a dozen or more growers who have some knowledge of the status of the expired contract, especially current or past leadership in the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association. Some simply are long-time Crystal shareholders.

Paul Mathiason of Grand Forks, N.D., who farms near Thompson, N.D., says he thinks the company was “exonerated” in some way by the National Labor Relations Board, which recently dismissed a union charge that the company had failed to negotiate in good faith. The union is contemplating an appeal.

“These are local workers,” Mathiason says. “We’d like them to go back to work.” He says he doesn’t know how long the impasse will continue, but says he regrets it will “take a while to rebuild” the relationship that existed before the negotiations.

Mathiason, a former president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, says that, if he understands it correctly, one of the central issues is whether Crystal has the ability to put “people where they’re most effective” in the plant, regardless of seniority or even particular educational credentials. He says farmers probably can understand that thinking because “that’s how we operate on our own farms,” he says, especially as they’ve dealt with high-tech equipment changes.

One Minnesota beet grower, who spoke only on condition of not being identified by name or location, says commenting on the issue “doesn’t do us much good.”

The grower says he has not read through all of the “fine details” of what’s been proposed by American Crystal management, but thinks the vast majority think the company has handled the negotiations and lockout properly.

Future viability

The union has maintained that American Crystal’s expired contract allowed the company to succeed. The grower says the company may be doing well today, but the changes being sought by the company are important for the “future viability” of the company.

“In farming, things can change a lot,” the grower says. “Things could be totally different in a year or two, and we could be going backward,” he says, adding that he thinks a “pretty high percentage” of growers are in agreement on that.

The farmer says union members may be holding out hope that the factories won’t be able to operate safely or efficiently without them, but — to growers he’s talked with — it appears the factories are being run adequately enough with replacement workers, at least so far. He fears the AFL-CIO affiliated union may be “leading them astray.”

Company managers have underlined to farmers and shareholders that the unions have accumulated “unbelievable power” through time, and have gotten “too carried away” in their control of job rules, the farmer says. The company really wants the workers to come back, the farmer says.

“The union has quite a plan, I would suppose, about what they do,” the farmer says. “That’s what they do.”

The farmer says it has been difficult to listen to talk radio commentators on the topic.

“They’re kind of one-sided, but I take it with kind of a grain of salt,” he says. “They’ve been getting advertising pretty heavy from the union side.”

Crystal management has taken the “high side” of the road, the grower says, by not trying to publicize “things that would make the union look bad.”

A second farmer-shareholder, also from Minnesota, says the farmer’s family is sympathetic to the plight of workers and wants to keep a viable union in place. The farmer thinks it is important politically to keep the local unions as an ally, especially in the 2012 farm bill. The grower declines to say whether the union has behaved wisely through the impasse, or whether they the union members should consider again whether to accept the latest Crystal proposal.

Neither of the two growers can speculate how much extra they think the company — the growers — are paying to keep the replacement workers in place, and the union locked out.

“I know over time it’s going to add up,” the first grower says. “So far, the costs aren’t more than they projected.”

The Minnesota farmer says the main financial issue for the farmers is to get their beets processed.

“Management is working hard to make sure that isn’t a problem,” the farmer says.