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Published November 10, 2011, 11:30 AM

Locked-out ND workers press for jobless benefits

BISMARCK, N.D. — Workers from American Crystal Sugar Co. and their backers rallied at the state Capitol on Wednesday, demanding that lawmakers support allowing the company's locked-out North Dakota employees to collect unemployment benefits.

By: Dale Wetzel, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. — Workers from American Crystal Sugar Co. and their backers rallied at the state Capitol on Wednesday, demanding that lawmakers support allowing the company's locked-out North Dakota employees to collect unemployment benefits.

The Minnesota company, which operates eastern North Dakota sugar beet processing plans in Drayton and Hillsboro, locked out about 1,300 union-represented employees Aug. 1 after the two sides failed to agree on a new contract.

The dispute involves workers at processing plants in North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. About 400 North Dakota workers are affected. The company has hired replacement workers to operate the factories.

The North Dakota Legislature is meeting in special session this week. On Monday, a Senate committee rebuffed an attempt by Sen. Philip Murphy, D-Portland, to introduce legislation to allow the North Dakota workers to get unemployment benefits. Murphy plans to try to attach the proposal to a pending bill.

Murphy spoke to a crowd of more than 100 people in the Capitol's Memorial Hall. Several workers carried signs reading, “A lockout is a layoff.”

“We are literally being starved out of our house and home,” said Derek Whetzel of Mayville, who is a technician at American Crystal's Hillsboro plant.

“I have never, ever had to ask for any assistance, whether it be unemployment, anything, and I found myself in a spot where I had to apply for food stamps, for fuel assistance. I put my house on the market,” Whetzel said. “And there's many, many members that are in the same boat.”

It has been difficult for him to find another job, Whetzel said, because prospective employers fear that he will leave when the dispute is settled.

American Crystal's locked-out workers in Minnesota and Iowa are eligible for unemployment benefits. Brian Ingulsrud, the company's vice president for administration, said Wednesday he did not believe the North Dakota law should be changed.

“We have made a very generous (contract) offer,” Ingulsrud said.

Whetzel said that during contract negotiations, it has been common for the company to allow its union-represented employees to work while talks continued.

“In this situation, we're locked out. We want to work,” he said. “We are willing to work through negotiations. The company chose not to have us there.”

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