More than 1,300 workers have been locked out at five plants in Crookston, Moorhead, and East Grant Forks, Minnesota, and in Hillsboro and Drayton, North Dakota.
By a margin of 96 percent, members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers union rejected the bosses final offer July 30. The company locked out workers two days later and hired Strom Engineering to bring in scab labor.
American Crystal is pushing for major concessions, including higher health-care costs and the right to contract out union jobs. For years the company has cut jobs through speedup and new machinery, according to workers. In 1990 we had 50 workers per shift, now its down to 26, said Dee Middleton, a worker at the Drayton plant. We had 15 mechanics per shift, now youre lucky to get five.
Many locked-out workers came to the rally on union buses, joining a motorcycle caravan of workers from Hillsboro and East Grand Forks. Honking trucks and cars greeted them.
Its great to see all this solidarity, said worker Ryan Hjelmstad. Im from a third generation of sugar workershis grandmother, aunt, and uncle.
I went on strike 30 years ago against American Crystal for a month, said John Rott, a 33-year veteran at the Moorhead plant. But this time, it will be much tougher. Theyre out to break the union.
Speakers included the presidents of the North Dakota and Minnesota AFL-CIO. Tom Ricker, president of United Steelworkers Local 560 from Gwinner, North Dakota, said workers needed solidarity and handed over $5,000.
Workers from other unions joined the noon rally, including postal workers, boilermakers, public workers, and two from Delta Airlines in Minneapolis. Locked-out workers are getting support from local residents and businesses. The Zoo Bar and Lounge in Drayton donated a pallet of water, said worker Gary Melland.
As of August 21, no union members had crossed the picket line. Charles Ross had worked only four weeks at the Moorhead plant after moving from Texas to take a job offer there. After my son and I were hired, the company asked our class of new hires if wed continue working in a labor dispute, he said. Well, here I am on the picket line. Theres no way wed cross.
Twenty-seven workers are also locked out at the companys storage facility in Mason City, Iowa. So far Teamster truck drivers and train crews have refused to come into the plant, Tom Johanns, president of BCTGM Local 269G, told the Militant August 6. Nonunion trucks are entering, with managerial staff loading the sugar.
Dee Middleton from Drayton and other workers from North Dakota told the Militant theyd received letters denying them unemployment benefits.
Locked-out workers have spoken on radio stations and written letters to local papers to get out their side of the story.
By overwhelmingly rejecting the contract, workers have sent a strong message that we are now into it for the long haul, Keith Hasbargen wrote in the August 5 issue of the Hillsboro Banner. We will stand together to show our community that we will not give in.
Ken Lamberson, a boiler fireman in East Grand Forks, told the Militant that American Crystal had asked his family to be in a promotional video to show how the company is family oriented. Its really degrading, he said. They asked our family to make this video, then locked us all out six months later. The video was shown to workers at team communication meetings in May, said Neil Keena from Drayton.
Harvest season, a critical juncture, is just around the corner. The company will use scab labor to try to minimize workers leverage. Pre-piling of sugar beets begins in September. By October the harvest will be a 7-day, 24-hour operation, the start of what is known as the campaign.
In the past, union workers often worked vacation days to help out on the harvest. Not this year.
American Crystal is owned by approximately 3,000 shareholders who raise 500,000 acres of sugar beets in the Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota, says the company website. Its called a farmers coop but its a big corporation, said Local 269G president Johanns, himself a farmer.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said in 2000 that very large family farms, with sales of $500,000 or more, produce the biggest share of sugar beets in the Red River Valley.
The farmers who own American Crystal Sugar Company Cooperative thought long and hard about the very difficult lockout decision, and we understand and support it since we have $400 million to $500 million invested in the crop waiting to be harvested, wrote Bill Hejl, a sugar beet farmer in North Dakota, in a letter widely run in area newspapers.
Hejl, whos on the companys board of directors and was president of the World Association of Beet and Cane Growers, is far removed from working farmers who hold down jobs to make ends meet and can identify with workers struggles.
Many beet farmers in the valley have as much as 10,000 aces, said Dave Pokrzywrnski, shop steward at the Drayton plant, but others have smaller operations. It would be good to find a way to get the smaller farmers on our side.
During the first three weeks of the lockout, some 35 workers in the Red River Valley have subscribed to the Militant.
Subscriber Kari Sorenson said before the lockout she wasnt interested in union activity. Do you have any books to recommend? Ive been browsing amazon.com, she told Maggie Trowe, a socialist worker who introduced her to the paper. She ended up buying The Changing Face of U.S. Politics by Jack Barnes, Socialist Workers Party national secretary, and Teamster Rebellion by Farrell Dobbs, a central leader of the 1934 Teamsters strikes in Minneapolis and the SWP.
Donations can be sent to the Sugar Beet Workers Fund, 175 Aurora Ave., St. Paul, MN 55103. Write checks to Minnesota AFL-CIO, with BCTGM Lockout 2011 in the memo line.
Helen Meyers contributed to this article.
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