The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 75/No. 34      September 26, 2011

Fires expose safety hazard
in Midwest sugar lockout
(lead article)
EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn.—As the lockout of 1,300 sugar beet workers enters its sixth week, safety in American Crystal Sugar’s plants has become a major issue. In a 48-hour period September 9-10, fires broke out at three factories—here in East Grand Forks and in Crookston, as well as in Drayton, N.D.

“They tried to make the fires look routine, but they’re not,” Michael Hallick, a locked-out worker with 14 years in the East Grand Forks plant, told the Militant. “Someone’s going to get killed, and the risks are higher now with the scabs working inside.”

The most serious blaze was here in East Grand Forks, where firemen were on the scene for three hours. Jeff Schweitzer, a spokesman for American Crystal, downplayed the fires. “It’s not a high frequency,” he told the Grand Forks Herald, “but it is an occasional incident.”

Just one day before the fires, company Vice President Brian Ingulsrud said the harvest was going well and there were “no issues” with replacement workers.

“These fires show the company was seriously mistaken,” replied John Riskey, president of Local 167G of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union. “It’s time to stop playing this dangerous game, end this lockout, and get back to the negotiating table.”

Locked-out workers know firsthand that sugar refineries—with constant steam, hot liquids, chemicals, dust, long hours, and rotating shifts—can be dangerous places to work. Several workers pointed to the 2008 explosions and fire at the Imperial Sugar plant near Savannah, Ga., which resulted in 14 deaths and dozens of injuries. A massive accumulation of sugar dust fueled that blast.

The recent fires are another black eye for Strom Engineering, the agency providing most of the scabs for American Crystal. In 2006 one of Strom’s replacement workers was crushed to death at an AK Steel Corp. factory in Ohio, according to the Dayton Daily News. AK Steel had locked out its workers in a battle that lasted nearly 13 months.

This reporter visited the picket line in Drayton September 6, the first day of the harvest. As several van loads of scabs entered the plant, trucks hauling sugar beets crossed the picket line. “There goes another truck from Gudajtes,” said Paul Woinarwicz, a locked-out worker in Drayton. “He’s one of the big farmers in the Red River Valley. He’s got thousands of acres of sugar beets.” Workers said trucks crossed the lines at the other four plants too.

On September 6 about 60 union supporters protested in front of the offices of Express Employment Professionals, a temp agency hiring replacement workers in Grand Forks, N.D. “Hey don’t take jobs at American Crystal, those are our jobs,” picketers yelled. “We’re locked out. What you are doing is scabbing on us.”

“What’s a scab?” asked one of the workers who showed up there looking for work.

“A person who takes our jobs,” replied Chuck Hughes, a locked-out worker from East Grand Forks.

At that point, the police intervened, saying the picketers couldn’t engage people going into the agency.

Another appeal for workers not to cross picket lines appeared in a letter in AgWeek from Cindy Kolling, a locked-out worker from Crookston: “We are locked out and cannot work in what appears to be a long-planned management strategy to break the union. You need to choose and take a stand. Make the right decision and do it with pride.”

On September 10 more than 60 motorcycles and cars took part in a “Support Ride” to all five factories in the valley. Most riders were locked-out workers, but other unionists joined from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the International Association of Machinists.

Becki Jacobsen, a locked-out worker from Moorhead, came up with the idea after participating in a motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D, in August. “A lot of my coworkers ride motorcycles,” Jacobsen said, “so we decided to get them involved and organize a solidarity ride.”

At each plant riders joined the picket lines. They raised $727 for the locked-out workers in North Dakota, where state officials have denied them unemployment benefits.

This week United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189 in South St. Paul voted to send $1,000 to the locked-out workers. Local 12 of the Office and Professional Employees International Union sent $500, and Local 3800 of AFSCME contributed $250.

The union is organizing weekly rallies on the Sorlie Bridge in East Grand Forks. “I like the rallies,” Sandy Driscoll said, as she picketed in East Grand Forks. “They pick up our spirits.”

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.
Related articles:
Hyatt hotel workers fight for contract
On the Picket Line
Locked-out sugar workers win solidarity in Iowa
ILWU longshoremen in Wash. resist union busting at terminal
Join Sept. 27 actions by postal workers  
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