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The American Crystal Sugar Co. factory at Hillsboro, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Forum News Service

American Crystal Sugar, union to talk in April

MOORHEAD, Minn. — American Crystal Sugar Co. in Moorhead, Minn., says it has settled on dates starting in mid-April for talks with the factory union on a labor contract that expires July 31.

Lisa Borgen, Crystal vice president of administration, confirmed the agreement with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers local union, which provides for several dates in months leading to the end of the contract.

"But we're hoping we'll settle early so that everyone can get on with our daily work," she emphasized.

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, acknowledged that talks would start the third week of April: "Like we have in the past we'll go to the table, like we always have, to get a fair agreement for our members and for American Crystal Sugar."

Borgen says that settling on the negotiation dates is "heartening," and that the company is "looking at this as a very positive move."

Borgen denied rumors that the company is already starting to train workers that would step in as replacement workers in the case of a labor impasse.

She acknowledged, however, that the company has a responsibility to its farmer-shareholders to make sure they are able to continue operating the plants so that processing of perishable beets isn't interrupted.

The company is "exploring our options" with companies whose business is to run manufacturing companies or other bargaining unit companies when there is a strike or a lockout, she says.

"I think our employees are aware that we've had those companies in, walking through our facilities, but we have not retained a company," she says. "Our goal is to keep our people in our plants. We believe they are the best in industry."

American Crystal since 2015 has been making overtures to workers about efforts to make a new contract. The union complained about these overtures to the National Labor Relations Board, but the complaints were dismissed or settled but with no finding of direct-dealing.

The company earlier proposed a contract extension that included 3 percent annual base pay increases for the next five years, shift pay improvements beneficial to workers, pension increases and $2,500 signing bonuses. There is no offer on the table now.

"The unilateral offer to extend the contract which we made last summer expired with no vote by the union," she says.

The company has said it doesn't want a repeat of the schedule that produced a July 31, 2011, lockout of workers. The company locked out employees for 22 months, through May 2013.