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Published August 06, 2014, 10:42 AM

Longer shifts top concern for Simplot workers

An official with the union representing striking J.R. Simplot Co. workers in Grand Forks, N.D., says proposed contract changes would affect employees’ family lives.

By: John Hageman, Forum News Service

An official with the union representing striking J.R. Simplot Co. workers in Grand Forks, N.D., says proposed contract changes would affect employees’ family lives.

Workers at the Gateway Drive Simplot plant voted Aug. 4 to go on strike, citing terms of a contract offer from the Boise, Idaho-based agribusiness company. While union officials say the contract affects health insurance and retirement benefits, Teamsters Local 120 Business Agent Bill Wedebrand emphasizes the potential effects of longer shifts on employees’ families.

The proposed contract allows for 12-hour shifts — 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and vice versa — compared with the eight-hour shifts currently in place, Wedebrand says. But he says the proposed contract doesn’t guarantee days off.

“The company says ‘you’ll get them,’ but won’t put it in writing,” he says. Wedebrand says the current contract doesn’t guarantee days off, but includes language about getting extra pay for working a certain amount of consecutive days, “whereas this one doesn’t have that kind of language.”

It also doesn’t ensure that employees wouldn’t work more than 12 hours in one shift, Wedebrand says.

“We need to know what tomorrow brings when it comes to schedules,” he says, adding that the union prefers eight-hour workdays.

Wedebrand says workers are concerned about changing schedules affecting their ability to spend time with family and finding daycare providers.

“It’s about the families,” Wedebrand says. “It’s very important to us to have a family life outside of work.”

Production

Simplot spokesman David Cuoio writes in an email that production in Grand Forks has been “temporarily put on hold for the plant’s annual summer cleaning and maintenance, which had been previously scheduled for this time period.

“Production is scheduled to start up again in a couple of weeks,” he adds. “If necessary, that work will resume by using Simplot management personnel from across the company’s North American food group operations.”

Cuoio says he was “not able to provide additional comments at this time” in response to follow-up questions regarding proposed contract changes. He says the changes Simplot proposed were “necessary.”

“All of the changes are in line with competitive best practices and creating a ‘best place to work’ environment in the local community,” he says. “Simplot has implemented similar changes at several of our other sites, and we’ve experienced positive outcomes such as reduced turnover and better work/life balance.”

Other issues

The proposed contract also included significant increases for out-of-pocket expenses for health insurance, Wedebrand says. He did not have specific figures available Aug. 5.

He says the contract also changes the pension plan to a 401(k). Simplot has proposed contributing a certain dollar amount into a 401(k) plan, “which isn’t as secure as the defined pension program.”

“Which ends up being quite a bit less money,” he says.

Wedebrand says negotiations with Simplot have been going on for “a couple of months.” An offer was voted down in early July, and union members voted 108 to 37 against a final contract offer Aug. 4.

The Teamsters Local 120 represents about 190 Simplot employees in Grand Forks, Wedebrand says, which includes laborers, mechanics and refrigeration workers.

Wedebrand says he had not communicated with Simplot management since informing them of the vote. He says there are no meetings currently scheduled.

The scene

Several Simplot employees declined to comment outside the plant, and instead deferred to union representatives.

A Teamsters trailer was set up next to the plant on the north side of Gateway Drive, where Simplot makes potato products. A grill, packages of bottled water and bug spray sat nearby. About a dozen striking employees held signs on the lawn in front of the plant and waved to honking cars.

Pro Dog Security cars drove in front of the plant, and a Grand Forks police vehicle was parked in a nearby lot. Cpl. Troy Vanyo says the department is not stationing officers there during the strike, but he stopped by because the plant is in his assigned area of town. He says there have been “no problems” with the strike.

Simplot ranked No. 61 in Forbes’ list of America’s largest private companies. Forbes reported that the company had $6 billion in revenue as of December 2013 and 10,000 employees worldwide.

Annette Glomstad, whose husband is a Simplot employee, says she has a lot of friends who work at the plant.

“To me, it’s heartbreaking that it has to come to this,” she says.

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