The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 75/No. 39      October 31, 2011

Sugar workers solid in fight
against bosses union busting
(lead article)
GRAND FORKS, N.D.—After 11 weeks on picket lines, locked-out members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union will resume negotiations with American Crystal Sugar, the largest beet sugar refiner in the U.S. The talks, called by a federal mediator, will begin October 24.

The BCTGM has publicly asked the company to return to the negotiating table and end the lockout. “Despite being locked out for more than two months, our spirits are good,” said Ken Lamberson, who works at American Crystal Sugar’s plant in East Grand Forks, Minn.

About 1,300 workers were locked out by American Crystal at five plants in the Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota and in two smaller plants in southern Minnesota and Iowa after they rejected the company’s “final offer” by 96 percent. The plants are being run by hundreds of scabs, who work two 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

“We’ve been ready to negotiate from day one. If they don’t change their offer, then it will be a stalemate,” Gayln Olson, BCTGM Local 372G president from Hillsboro, told the Militant.

In an October 13 letter to the membership, the union negotiating committee reviewed two of the main reasons the contract was rejected: “contracting language [that] allows our jobs to be outsourced” and the company’s demand to have “the right to increase our health care costs whenever they choose.”

The company has sought to convince workers that they are not targeting job security and the union by contracting out certain jobs currently performed by union labor. “Despite the company’s claims in the press and public letters,” the letter said, “the language still allows for the outsourcing of our jobs. If the company has no intention of outsourcing our jobs, they shouldn’t have a problem working together to clarify the language.”

As for health care, the union letter notes, “While we are open to discussing changes in health insurance, we are not open to bringing that much uncertainty to workers and their families.”

As winter approaches, locked-out workers are preparing their pickets to withstand the cold months ahead with home-constructed wind shields, fire-barrels, and wood stoves. The firewood, in most cases, is donated from union supporters. In Drayton, an icehouse is already in place to keep the pickets warm.

BCTGM lawyers are appealing the decision by the North Dakota unemployment office to deny unemployment compensation to its locked-out members in that state.

Some locked-out workers, especially those denied unemployment, have been forced to find work. Some have taken jobs in North Dakota’s oil fields, which are booming right now. About a dozen sugar workers from the Moorhead, Minn., and Hillsboro plants joined an October 15 Occupy Fargo protest of 150 at U.S. Bank Plaza in that city. They carried signs on the lockout and handed out flyers. Further north they participated in an Occupy Grand Forks protest. “These protests in the Red River Valley are important to go to and they help energize locked-out workers,” said Lamberson.

Charlie Wang, who has worked in the Moorhead plant for a year, was making sure participants at the Fargo action got flyers on their fight. “Some of the people say that the unions are the past, but they are most what we need today,” he said.

Speaking at the end of the Fargo action, Bev Jones encouraged people to come to the picket line at shift change. “If you want to see an example of corporate greed, this was it.”

Students from North Dakota State University in Fargo, and Minnesota State University and Concordia College, both in Moorhead, were there. “When’s the best time to come down to the picket line?” asked Mohammed Mostafa, a student from North Dakota State University who came with friends.

Union spokesman Mark Froemke addressed an October 12 meeting of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation. The executive board donated $500. A separate motion by a unionist in Teamsters Local 120 for $1,300 passed unanimously and a hand collection raised another $1,000.

Donations to the sugar workers can be sent to BCTGM Local 167G, 100 N 3rd, Suite 50, Grand Forks, ND 58203. Write checks to BCTGM 167G with “2011 BCTGM lockout” in the memo line.

Diana Newberry contributed to this article.  
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