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Published June 07, 2012, 06:05 AM

Two days before union talks, sugar co-op leaders say they like replacement workers

Ten months after they locked out 1,300 Bakery Workers union members and two days before their next talks with the union over a new contract, the top brass of American Crystal Sugar Co. looked and spoke Wednesday as if they are sitting in the catbird seat.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

Ten months after they locked out 1,300 Bakery Workers union members and two days before their next talks with the union over a new contract, the top brass of American Crystal Sugar Co. looked and spoke Wednesday as if they are sitting in the catbird seat.

“We don’t have a burning desire to settle this,” President and CEO David Berg said in an interview at the Herald, accompanied by the company’s other executives.

The campaign to turn last year’s sugar beet crop into sugar ended nearly a month ago and this year’s crop is off to “an excellent start,” Berg said.

The company has made its final offer — a slightly amended version of the one union members voted down July 31, spurring the lockout — and management and shareholders are firmly determined not to change a jot or tittle, according to Berg.

“It’s a good, competitive offer and as much as we are going to put on the table,” he said. “We don’t feel the need to make another offer.”

‘Rejuvenating’

The 10-month lockout actually “has become an exercise in rejuvenating the company,” Berg said.

Non-union workers hired to replace the locked-out union workers “are enthusiastic and energetic and apparently talented,” Berg said, fresh from a meeting with workers at the factory in Drayton, N.D. “I’m very happy with them.”

Meanwhile Wednesday, locked-out workers and supporters ended their seven-day caravan outside American Crystal’s headquarters in Moorhead in a rally hoping to win public support.

The two sides will sit down with a federal mediator Friday for the fourth time, the first since Jan. 30.

Federal law prohibits a company from permanently replacing locked-out workers; but otherwise it’s possible for a lockout to last years, Berg said.

The fact that more than 7,000 have applied for replacement jobs indicates the company’s pay package is a good deal, Berg said.

Replacements

The company continues to hire replacement workers, he said. About 900 locals were hired since about Dec. 1, replacing most of the original replacements hired through Strom Engineering in Minnetonka, Minn.

The high costs of the original replacement workers from across the nation, including room and board, was a large reason profits were lower and grower-owners are slated to receive $59 per ton for last year’s crop, $13 less than the neighboring beet co-op, Minn-Dak Growers based in Wahpeton, Berg acknowledged. But $59 still is the second-largest payment to growers, he said.

The record warm, snowless winter meant for the first time in the cooperative’s 40-year history, the beets didn’t freeze in storage, meaning more than usual were lost to rot.

But Berg said it wasn’t too bad: about 100,000 tons out of a total crop of about 9 million tons of beets were spoiled by too-balmy weather during the nine-month processing campaign at the five factories.

About 750 replacement workers remain and the company will keep most of them over the summer for training and helping maintain and repair the factories and equipment for the fall campaign.

In fact, this year’s crop got planted so early that if things go as it appears they will, the company will be slicing beets in August, Berg said.


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

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