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Published April 22, 2013, 10:48 AM

Heading back to work

Workers returning to American Crystal Sugar Co. following its lengthy lockout do not consider that lockout's end to be a union victory.

By: John Lamb, Agweek

MOORHEAD, Minn. — American Crystal Sugar Co. workers locked out of their jobs since Aug. 1, 2011, are heading back to work, but it’s a bittersweet resolution for the union.

Fifty-five percent of union members voted to ratify the contract April 13, their fifth vote during the labor dispute.

“It just means now that American Crystal skilled, experienced workers will be transitioned back to the factory to start repairing the damage that has been caused over the last 20 months,” says John Riskey, president of Local 167G of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union.

Riskey says the damage he referred to was to the communities, locked-out workers, their families and to American Crystal and its shareholders.

“The members have spoken, and they felt it was time to get back there,” he says. “The company has been dragged down. The management and shareholders didn’t seem to get it, so now the union has stepped up to the plate and put the families and communities first, and especially our children.”

Riskey didn’t say how many voted, only that it was a good turnout. He thanked those in the area and across the country who supported the locked-out workers.

Based in Moorhead, American Crystal has sugar beet processing plants in East Grand Forks, Minn., Crookston, Minn., Drayton, N.D., and Hillsboro, N.D. It also has packaging and transportation sites in Chaska, Minn., and Mason City, Iowa.

“We’re very pleased that our employees have accepted the contract and will be returning to work,” says Brian Ingulsrud, vice president for administration with American Crystal.

Ingulsrud says the “complex process” of getting people back to work now begins.

All employees will notify American Crystal or the union if they will return, but noting that some have moved on, Ingulsrud says there will be “a lot of openings to fill. ... That whole process is going to take a while.”

He says the company would “make a good-faith effort to get the locked-out employees back into the workforce within approximately six weeks.”

Of the 1,300 union workers locked out, about 650 have officially resigned or retired, while others have moved on without telling the company, says an American Crystal spokesman.

Narrower margins

The lockout started after 96 percent of voting union members rejected a contract that would have increased their pay by 17 percent over five years.

Union leaders say the contract wouldn’t be good for worker health coverage and would compromise safety and product quality.

Three months later, 90 percent voted against the offer, which no longer contained a $2,000 signing bonus.

Sixty-three percent rejected the deal in June, and 55 percent were against it in the last vote in December.

The contract accepted April 13 was basically the same one the union previously denied.

According to American Crystal, the hourly pay would increase by a total of 13 percent over the roughly four years of the contract, which would expire July 31, 2017.

Replacement workers are generally receiving the same pay and benefits offered to union workers, the company says.

Before the lockout, the average year-round employee’s annual pay and benefits, including overtime, was more than $75,000, Ingulsrud says.

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