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Published January 11, 2012, 10:05 PM

Union seeks mediator in American Crystal lock-out

A union leader for locked-out American Crystal Sugar Co. workers says he has asked a federal mediator to lead another round of negotiations with the company. A representative for the company says it would be receptive to a mediator.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

In the sixth month of the Red River Valley’s biggest labor dispute in years, the union representing locked-out American Crystal Sugar workers said Wednesday it has asked a federal mediator to bring both sides back to negotiations.

“If the company agrees to a meeting, the negotiating committee is committed to staying at the table for as long as it takes to reach a fair agreement that puts an end to this destructive lock out,” said John Riskey, president of Bakery Workers Local 167 which represents employees at three of the five Crystal plants in the Valley, in a news release.

“We have and continue to offer significant compromise proposals that are beneficial to both the company and workers,” he said. “We are hopeful the company does the same and joins us at the table for as long as it takes.”

Brian Ingulsrud, American Crystal’s vice president for administration who has headed up the company’s negotiations, told the Herald Wednesday the door remains open from the company’s perspective.

But the company hadn’t received any request for another meeting, Ingulsrud said in an email. “We’ve been willing to meet in the past whenever contacted by the federal mediator and I expect we will in the future as well.”

A spokesman for the federal mediation service has said the mediation process is voluntary and both sides must agree to sit down in order for more talks to happen.

About 1,300 union members from the five Crystal plants and from packaging and transportation sites in Chaska, Minn., and Mason City, Iowa, have been locked out by the company since rejecting a new five-year contract July 31.

Resistance

While several union members have told the Herald they never expected the lock out to last this long and that more members might vote for a new contract now, many appear resolute, based on interviews.

Matt Barker, from Florida, began working at the Hillsboro plant about three years ago, year-round, he said this week. He’s taken another job in the area during the lock-out to make ends meet.

But even if given another chance, he would not vote to accept the latest offer from American Crystal, Barker said.

The language in the proposed contract would allow the company to decide who gets which jobs, rather than the union-directed seniority system, he said. “So if a manager doesn’t like you, you won’t get the job.”

He understands why the company has to do what it thinks it needs to do, but for him and his family, Barker said he can’t relent unless the contract proposal changes.

Ingulsrud, in a letter to union members last month, said the company’s offer is fair and it wants its union employees back.

Two rounds

Since the lock-out began, company and union leaders have met twice at talks in Fargo convened by a federal mediator.

At the second round of talks over two days in late October, the company sweetened its new contract proposal by offering to give the union workers another year of health insurance at no cost and adding language it said guaranteed no union members would lose jobs in the new contract.

But the union again voted by a margin of more than 90 percent to reject the offer, union officials said.

The company’s contract offers salary raises of 4 percent the first year, 3 percent the second year and 2 percent each of the final three years of the contract.

It also requires employees in the union to begin to pay 17 percent of the premium cost for their health insurance, while the company pays 83 percent. Union members have said that will cost them more than the annual raises, while company officials say it will cost less than the annual raises.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send email to slee@gfherald.com.

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