Crystal workers headed back to jobs, but resentments linger

MOORHEAD, Minn. -- The reality they will soon return to work at American Crystal Sugar is generating a mix of emotions among workers locked out of their jobs for nearly two years.

MOORHEAD, Minn. -- The reality they will soon return to work at American Crystal Sugar is generating a mix of emotions among workers locked out of their jobs for nearly two years.

Becki Jacobson, a union worker at the Moorhead Crystal plant for more than 30 years, is still unhappy with some aspects of the contract the union approved April 13, but says, "I'm ready to get back to work."

She knows it will be difficult working side by side with replacement employees and union workers who went back to the job without a contract.

"We were all in this fight together. We feel betrayed by some people," said Jacobson, who hopes time will eventually soften hard feelings.

"I don't want to have enemies," she said.


For its part, the company seems keen on mending relations.

After the April 13 union vote, David Berg, president and chief executive officer of American Crystal Sugar, issued a letter welcoming the union workers back.

It read in part:

"It is my sincere hope and expectation that all of us will now put the disagreements of the past year behind us.

"Doing that will allow every one of us to devote our attention and our efforts to re-building relationships and building on the feeling of achievement and security that we gain by doing our jobs," Berg wrote.

"Recognizing that these events have seriously disrupted many peoples' lives, it is my personal goal that we will now turn a page and begin to add many more years of good jobs and economic success to the company's future," Berg added.

According to the back-to-work agreement outlined on a company website, returning union workers are expected to refrain from destroying company property and from harassing nonunion workers and their families.

Shorter commute


Jason Trosvig found employment with JR Simplot in Grand Forks, N.D., after he and about 1,300 fellow union workers were locked out of their American Crystal Sugar jobs in August 2011.

Trosvig, a five-year employee at American Crystal, said the pay at Simplot was good, but the hours and the 60-mile round-trip commute from his home in Hillsboro, N.D., were a strain.

"I look forward to returning to my bulk-loading job at Crystal Sugar," said Trosvig, who is 27 and believes the contract approved by union members will provide him with career and educational opportunities.

The vote, which was 55 percent in favor, was the fifth vote taken on a contract offer the union first rejected in July 2011 and turned down three more times before April 13.

If union workers had approved the contract in the first vote, they would have received a $2,000 signing bonus in addition to a 13 percent pay increase over the life of the contract.

The average wage for year-round employees in 2011 was about $21 an hour, according to the company.

The company has said the average total compensation for union workers before the lockout was about $75,000 a year, including benefits and overtime.

Under the approved agreement, union workers will receive a 13 percent pay raise over roughly the next four years, with the new contract expiring July 31, 2017.


Returning to work

Union leaders declined to say how many members participated in the April 13 vote.

Since the lockout began, about 650 employees have officially resigned or retired, American Crystal says.

Trosvig said he has made friends with a few replacement workers and has kept ties with fellow union workers who went back to work before the lockout was concluded.

"So I should be able to get along with them," he said.

Under the return-to-work agreement, union workers will go back to the last permanent job they held before Aug. 1, 2011.

Achieving that is expected to take time, according to information posted on the company's website.

"The transitional period to bring (union workers) back to work is expected to be complex and patience will be required by all parties," American Crystal said, adding that it will do its best to get locked-out employees back to their jobs within six weeks.

Another goal of the company is to keep as many replacement workers as possible, said Brian Ingulsrud, vice president for administration at American Crystal.

"We believe there will be opportunities for the majority of our replacement employees to apply for open positions resulting from locked-out employees not returning," he said.

Replacement workers who find permanent jobs at the company's three Minnesota plants must become union members, while those who find jobs at Crystal's two North Dakota factories don't have to.

If Crystal employees in North Dakota choose not to become members of the union, they will still be covered by the union contract and will receive the same pay and benefits as employees who are members of the union, and the union is obligated to represent them, Ingulsrud said.

He said sessions aimed at promoting respect in the workplace are planned. They will involve union and nonunion employees, as well as supervisors.

"There will be zero tolerance for any harassment between employees," Ingulsrud said.

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