Midwest sugar workers:
Were not backing down
Donations raise spirits of locked-out unionists
Locked-out American Crystal workers at October 28 protest in East Grand Forks, Minn.
BY FRANK FORRESTAL
EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn.Passersby waved and honked as locked-out members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union and their supporters picketed here along the Sorlie bridge. The October 28 picket is a weekly reminder that most working people support the fight by 1,300 workers in the Upper Midwest against American Crystal Sugar.
By a margin of 96 percent on July 30, workers from five plants in Minnesota and North Dakota, and two smaller factories in southern Minnesota and Iowa, rejected contract concessions demanded by American Crystal, the largest sugar beet producer in the U.S. The company responded by initiating a lockout the bosses had been preparing for some time.
The plants are being run by hundreds of replacement workers. Ten vans of scabs crossed the picket line during a recent shift change in Hillsboro, N.D.
The company wants us to back down and make an example out of us. We dont want that to happen, said Dave Pearson, a worker from the plant here who was picketing on the bridge.
We all need to stand behind the union workers and offer any and all assistance we can before this becomes the accepted practice in our towns, wrote Mike Frank in an October 30 letter to the Grand Forks Herald.
The union worked for several weeks to restart negotiations with the company. Federal-mediated talks resumed on October 24, but broke down the following day. This is the first time the two sides have met in months.
The company made two amendments to their previous contract proposal. One, they promised workers would not be laid off because of the companys decision to contract out work. Two, they delayed the elimination of the workers current health care plan by one year.
Workers health care coverage has been suspended under the lockout. Average annual health care expenses for workers under the new offer would increase from $650 to $2,400 per person, and could be raised further from time to time. The extension of current benefits, the company says, will be off the table if workers dont approve it by November 1.
The union has organized votes at seven plants for November 1.
The union came with 20 proposals to the negotiating table, but the company wasnt interested in discussing any of them, said Dave Pokrzwinski, a locked-out worker and shop steward, outside his home in Drayton, N.D.
Language that threatens job security is still in the contract, said Scott Ripplinger, a worker from the plant here.
The company made no serious moves. Then they turn around and try to make the union look bad in the press, said Jeff Holbeck, a locked-out worker, while picketing outside the East Grand Forks plant.
All of us want to go back to work, but theyd like to see us crawl back, said Steve Eliason, while picketing outside the Hillsboro plant.
Another concern among workers is a section of the contract added to the latest offer that says eligible employees will return to work within 10 days of the date the contract is ratified.
What does eligible mean? asked Dennis Wilebski, on the picket line in Drayton. We have real questions about that too. According to Mel Morris, one of the union negotiators from East Grand Forks, the company refused to clarify this provision, saying they would address it after the contract was approved.
The company is trying to starve us out by denying us unemployment, said Wilebski. One good thing thats lifting our spirits is the ongoing food drive organized by the union. This week workers in North Dakota received two bags of groceries, four rolls of toilet paper and a bunch of potatoes.
We have been receiving donations from our own members, other workers and unions, and from area food banks, said Ripplinger, one of the organizers of the food drive.
Meanwhile, a few days after talks collapsed, another fire broke out at the plant in Moorhead, causing a considerable amount of damage, according to Valley News Live in Fargo, N.D. It took the fire department two hours to put it out. Theyll write it off as a common occurrence, said Ross Perrin, who is locked out from that plant. Any situation like this can turn into a devastating event. Lucky nobody got hurt.
This was the second fire at the Moorhead plant since the company started using scab labor. Three other fires broke out at three other American Crystal plants in early September.
On the Picket Line
Labor struggles resist bosses drive to crush our unions, morale