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Published November 09, 2011, 02:06 PM

Crystal workers, supporters rally at N.D. Capitol for unemployment insurance inclusion; lawmakers decline

About 150 locked-out American Crystal Sugar workers and supporters rallied in the North Dakota Capitol's Great Hall today, urging legislators meeting in special session to bring them into the state's unemployment insurance program. The lawmakers declined.

By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald

BISMARCK -- About 150 locked-out Crystal Sugar workers and supporters rallied in the Capitol's Great Hall today, urging legislators meeting in special session to bring them into the state's unemployment insurance program.

The lawmakers declined, as the House Appropriations Committee voted 16-5 this afternoon against adding the proposal to the omnibus disaster relief bill.

“We’re an appropriations committee, and we’re dealing with an amendment that we’ve not had any kind of financial analysis done for,” said Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby. “Nobody’s even asked that question.”

He said he has sympathy for the families involved but doesn’t think the committee should make a decision without more information.

Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, said he also understands the urgency of the situation facing the workers, but he also wanted more information.

“I think we as legislators have a responsibility to hear both sides,” he said. “I don’t believe that it is in our best interest as a Legislature to address something as important as this hearing just one side of the issue.”

At the noontime rally, one of the locked-out workers spoke for all.

"I'm a North Dakotan in need, and my family is a North Dakota family in need," said Lynette Eberhardt, 47, a locked-out Crystal worker from Hillsboro.

She said her fifth grade daughter has given up dance classes, an older daughter hasn't returned to college and the family is getting by through "thrift stores and handouts."

Her husband has found some part-time work, she said, but that won't last and the family has applied for heating assistance, food stamps, free school lunches and medical assistance for the children. She said she's worried about making the next mortgage payment.

"My family is struggling," Eberhardt said. "The families of 408 other locked-out workers are struggling, too."

About 55 of the workers and union leaders had come by bus early today from the Red River Valley. They were joined at the Capitol by locked-out workers who had been lobbying for the change in state unemployment rules and local union supporters.

Among the supporters was Greg Burns, executive director of the North Dakota Education Association.

"We think it's wrong to lock people out," Burns said. "It's destroying many families to keep some of the shareholders in the company happy."

Rep. Phil Murphy, D-Portland, told the crowd about trying to get a bill introduced that would allow locked-out workers to qualify for unemployment insurance. That was denied by the Delayed Bills Committee, but Murphy said Rep. Lee Kaldor, D-Mayville, the assistant minority leader, had submitted the proposal as an amendment to the big disaster relief bill.

As a joint House-Senate committee met to consider that bill today, however, Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, questioned the connection with disaster relief.

“I don’t see anything in this bill that makes this germane,” Delzer said.

Kaldor said the bill has a common theme of helping people who have been hurt either by acts of God or by acts of man. “We have issues here that are affecting the entire state of North Dakota. This is really no different,” he said.

He cited the economic impact on the eastern side of the state and the “real pressure” on local Social Services, and he said other sections of the disaster bill could be challenged as to whether they fit the larger bill. One example, he said, is the $1 million allocated for a potential lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency over hydraulic fracturing.

Addressing the rally, Murphy acknowledged "the odds are stacked against us" in this special session, but "we will achieve what we need to achieve, and someday you will be able to feed your families.

"I know there's a lot of need," he said. "I've seen your families. This is not the kind of state we want to be, not the people we want to be."

Gary Granzotto, president of the state AFL-CIO, said the locked-out workers "negotiated in good faith to bring resolution, to bring in a new contract, and they offered to continue working under the old contract. But Crystal Sugar's response was to lock them out.

"It was premeditated, with malice aforethought," he said, drawing cheers -- which grew louder when he added, "They had scabs lined up," referring to the replacement workers brought in by the company.

"Workers in North Dakota deserve better treatment than what you locked out workers are getting," Granzotto said.

"We may not win this battle here today, but the story is getting out. Coalitions are being formed. And did I mention we're entering an election cycle?"

Teri Finneman, Forum Communications State Capitol Bureau reporter, also contributed to this article.

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