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American Crystal Sugar offers bonuses if labor deal set by May 22

MOORHEAD, Minn. —— Talks started April 19 in Grand Forks, N.D., between American Crystal Sugar Company and their factory labor union, and both sides say they want to avoid a lockout situation that lasted from July 2011 to May 2013, but there are signs that the two may not easily agree.

Lisa Borgen, vice president of administration for the Moorhead, Minn., farmer-owned American Crystal Sugar, posted an opening statement on the website Officials of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union didn’t immediately return phone messages or texts left Thursday.

Crystal’s statement didn't indicate terms of a new contract, which would be designed to replace one that expires July 31, 2017. The company is offering signing bonuses to many workers if the deal is sealed by May 22.

After the meetings on the second day, Borgen said both expressed a desire to "complete the negotiations in a timely manner. Some progress is being made."

American Crystal has about 1,200 employees in the union contract, located primarily at its sugar beet processing and refinery locations at Moorhead, East Grand Forks and Crookston in Minnesota and at Hillsboro and Drayton in North Dakota, as well as a handful of workers at storage facilities in Iowa and Minneapolis.

John Riskey, president of the BCTGM local in Grand Forks, late Thursday issued a press release that indicated it was "obvious from the very start of the negotiations that American Crystal Sugar's approach had not changed since they locked out its employees for 22 months almost six years ago. There was no give and take across the bargaining table because negotiators for Crystal Sugar came into these negotiations with well-scripted table talk and a plan to finish negotiations before they even started."

Riskey said that before the lockout the union members were "respected and treated with dignity" but now are "constantly evaluated and passed over in an effort to find what they think is the perfect employee."

In the statement posted to the website on April 19, Borgen said that if the agreement is in place before May 22, the company would propose $2,000 signing bonuses for all year-round and processing campaign workers covered by the union contract. It applies to those employed as of May 22 and who continue through Aug. 15, 2017, when the signing bonus would be paid. Seasonal harvest employees and temporary employees aren't eligible, she said.

Failing a May 22 conclusion, she noted talks are scheduled June 6-7, as well as July 24-July 27.

Borgen thanked workers for their “excellent work” and said the company believes it has the “best workforce in the sugar industry.” She stressed the desire to reach an agreement in a “timely manner” that keeps “good paying jobs and excellent benefits” and “without the interruption of a labor dispute.” Borgen described a “different approach” that the company wants to take, starting out talking about the “economic issues that everyone is most concerned with” like wages and pension, which are traditionally “relegated to the absolute end of the negotiations.”

Crystal is limiting its proposals to four "very specific items," she said:

  1. Provide reasonable wage and pension increases each year of the next contract.
  2. Eliminate the practice of paying “factored rates” for employees working on their regularly scheduled 12-hour rotating shifts. “Instead, workers would be paid their full contract rate for all hours worked and all paid time off,” Borgen wrote, adding, the company believes employees will earn more under a “regular 12-hour rotating shift” than under the “factored” system.
  3. Eliminate an attendance policy that requires employees to have paid time off available to be eligible for up to five unscheduled absences in a contract year.
  4. Extend other parts of the existing contract, except for the above three items.

The Union presented the company 17 proposals at the beginning of the first day, but Borgen didn't summarize them.

The BCTGM statement said the union had come to the table with "a few must have proposals aimed at helping the company stem the exodus of competent employees and in the end agree to a contract that allows employees to jointly share in Crystal's continued success. "Company negotiators responded to the Union's most important proposals during these sessions by saying they were 'not interested,'" the union said in the news release.

"We have come to a tentative agreement on the Company proposal involving the attendance policy," Borgen said. "We hope to receive the Union’s specific economic proposals, such as wages and pension, during our next meeting on May 2, in order to move forward with negotiations on a number of very important issues. American Crystal remains optimistic that the two parties will be able to come to a timely agreement."