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Published November 24, 2011, 02:56 PM

Dayton to American Crystal: Time for 'fair agreement' with locked-out workers

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton issued a statement Wednesday urging both sides in the American Crystal Sugar lockout to get back to the negotiation table, putting the most pressure on company officials.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton issued a statement Wednesday urging both sides in the American Crystal Sugar lockout to get back to the negotiation table, putting the most pressure on company officials.

“As Thanksgiving approaches, my heart goes out to the 1,300 American Crystal Sugar workers in the Red River Valley who have been locked out by their employer and are struggling to survive,” Dayton said in the statement posted on his official website. “After almost four months, the lockout has devastated families, communities and the economy of northwestern Minnesota.”

In late July, Dayton met with executives of American Crystal and union leaders, urging a resolution of their differences before the five-year contract ran out Aug. 1. At the time, Dayton said he was concerned that a lockout could lead to a “volatile situation” involving clashes between union members and replacement workers.

Urging negotiations

In his statement Wednesday, Dayton made it clear he sees the company as most responsible for the current standoff.

“It is time for American Crystal’s management to reach a fair agreement with its workers, who have contributed so much to the company’s current profitability,” he said in the written statement. “I strongly urge both parties to return to negotiations and find a solution that returns those locked-out workers to their jobs and restores stability to the company and the communities in which it operates.”

Brian Ingulsrud, Crystal’s vice president for administration who has been spokesman on the lockout, saw Dayton’s statement Wednesday.

“We have made multiple proposals to the union and they rejected the 17 percent pay increase that would have added to an already competitive $75,000 pay and benefits package, Ingulsrud said. “If the union hadn’t rejected the offer, our employees would be on the job.”

Ingulsrud said the 17 percent figure includes the $2,000 bonus to year-round employees offered until Aug. 1, and that the $75,000 figure refers also to the 950 year-round employees; the 350 who work only during the processing campaign are not eligible for most benefits.

John Riskey, union official, has said the company’s proposal before Aug. 1, as well as an amended proposal in late October adding language guaranteeing no union jobs would be cut and extending free health insurance for another year, did not offer enough. The proposal to have union members begin paying 17 percent of health insurance costs would eat up the proposed wage increases, Riskey has said.

The fact 90 percent or more of voting union members rejected the company’s proposals each time indicate how unfair the proposed contracts were, Riskey has told the Herald.

Dalrymple weighs in

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, asked Wednesday about the lockout in light of Dayton’s statement, released his own comment through spokesman Jeff Zent.

“He hopes both sides will return to the bargaining table because the dispute is hurting both sides,” Zent said in relaying Dalrymple’s comment. “He hopes they come together and find a solution.”

In August, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., urged each side to compromise and find language acceptable to the other side. Peterson also warned that if the lockout extended into several months or more, it could hurt chances of the sugar program surviving next year’s Congressional debates on a new farm bill.

American Crystal hired Strom Engineering of Minnetonka, Minn., to find replacement workers from across the nation beginning in August.

On Sunday the company began advertising for local replacement workers, because as the lockout goes “longer than anyone hoped,” the company needs a more practical replacement workforce of locals, Ingulsrud said.