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American Crystal Sugar employees have accepted contract offer, union official says

John Riskey, president of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers union Local 167G, confirmed on Wednesday, Sept. 14, that employees had approved a tentative agreement reached last week between union representatives and American Crystal.

American Crystal Sugar.jpg
Employees at American Crystal Sugar have approved a four-year contract agreement with the sugar processing cooperative.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek file photo
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EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. — American Crystal Sugar Co. employees on Set. 13, 2022, voted to accept a four-year labor contract proposal that raises pay by a total of 17% over four years. Votes were tallied Sept. 14, 2022.

The union had voted down an offer on July 26, 2022, had voted down an offer that was similar. The new deal provided annual percentage pay increases of 8%, 3%, 3% and 3%, respectively, over the next four years. That reshuffles some of the amounts in the rejected deal that offered 7% the first year, followed by increases of 4%, 3% and 3%.

The farmer-owned sugar processing cooperative has been negotiating with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers. The two parties most recently met Sept. 7 and Sept. 8, after which the negotiating committee recommended members vote in favor.

John Riskey, president of BCTGM Local 167G, which includes Crystal factories at Drayton, North Dakota, Crookston, Minnesota, and Moorhead, Minnesota, confirmed the majority vote Wednesday afternoon after the tally was counted. Riskey could not reveal how many members voted, the vote percentage or whether it was accepted at all locations. He could only confirme that a majority had voted in favor.

“The members have spoken,” Riskey said.

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“We are very pleased to have reached an agreement with our employees,” said Lisa Borgen, Crystal’s vice president of administration. She said the new agreement increased wages by 17% over four years, enhances vacation and time off, increases pension payout, adds a new vision insurance plan, "and brings other positive benefits to our employees.”

Earlier, Borgen said the proposals meant no full-time workers at the company would making less than $20.60 per hour.

No lockout intent

American Crystal is owned by 2,600 farmer-shareholders, producing beets on about 436,000 acres in the Red River Valley. The contract covers about 1,189 employees at seven locations.The previous five-year “master agreement,” negotiated April and May 2017, expired July 31, 2022.

The earlier rejected vote included a $1,000 “ratification bonus,” if the contract had been approved by Aug. 1, 2022. That went away but was replaced by a “retention” bonus, also of $1,000. To get that bonus, employees must be working on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2022, Thanksgiving Day. The union negotiating committee and the company agreed that the bonus would be paid the first of December. The company will make the payments so each qualifying employee gets the full $1,000 check, and will take care of the income taxes associated.

As before, Borgen the new contract was set at the shorter, four-year period in part because both sides are concerned about a changing economy. The bonus doesn’t go to harvest and temporary employees.

Borgen said the retention is geared toward bonuses during the holidays

The company proposed to increase pay scales for 16 jobs by for particular categories. “A total of 21 specific jobs have been paid over the contract wages for many years,” the summary said. “These wages will be made permanent before the annual increases are added.”

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According to a play-by-play of the negotiations, on a company website:

  •  The union initially asked for $10 per hour increases across the board, plus a 10% increase in the first year, and an additional 24% increases over three years, as well as an increase in 401K pension funds over a contract.
  • The company countered with an offer for a five-year contract with 4% increase the first year and 6% annually over four years, and a total of 10% over five years.”
  • The union counter-proposed an $8 per-hour across-the-board increase, with 8% increases each year over a four-year contract.
  • The company counter-proposed a 4% increase the first year, and then 5% increases over the last three years of a four-year contract, with the new paid leave program for births.
  • The company’s final offer was the 7% increase  the first year, 4% the second year, followed by two, 3% increases — a total of 17% across the years.

In the accepted contract, the company offered that vacation will accrue every two weeks rather than per year. Employees would receive a fourth week of vacation after the tenth year of service (instead of 15 years under the previous system.) At 20 years of service they receive five weeks a year. Employees who started work employment prior to Aug. 1, 2011, and have 25 years of continuous service receive six weeks of vacation.

Vacation balance

Also under the accepted proposal, employees would receive earned vacation in an “available balance” each pay period, instead of waiting for a lump sum the following January. Under the current system, vacation carries over up to 1.5 times an annual accrual amount into the next calendar year.

The new contract language also allowed 40 hours of paid leave whether an employee has a “birth or adoption of a child.”

The company’s use of “temporary workers” was an important concern for the union, Borgen noted. The contract specified that temporary workers (former employees, retirees, others) will not replace full-time positions but will provide “relief for prolonged vacancies” and aren’t eligible for paid time off or medical coverage and cannot work more than 180 days “unless mutually agreed between the union and management.”

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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