The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 75/No. 42      November 21, 2011

‘We have to draw
the line somewhere’
Sugar workers reject contract for 3rd time
(lead article)
HILLSBORO, N.D.—By a margin of 90 percent, locked out union sugar workers voted November 1 to reject American Crystal Sugar Company’s latest contract proposal. The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union reported that 92 percent of its membership turned out for the vote.

“They are trying to starve us out. This contract is worse than the last one,” said Rick Tessin, outside the Hillsboro union hall. Tessin, who like about 420 other workers at the company’s two plants in North Dakota, is denied unemployment compensation by the state government. Tessin said he recently sold his horse for much needed cash.

“Today our members sent a loud and clear message to American Crystal Executives,” said BCTGM Local 167G President John Riskey in a November 1 press release.

On July 30, by a margin of 96 percent, some 1,300 workers from three plants in northern Minnesota, two in 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 with a total lockout.

American Crystal bosses had prepared the lockout for many months, hiring scab-herding outfit Strom Engineering to line up hundreds of replacement workers, who started working as soon as the lockout began.

In the latest round of federal-mediated talks, the company made two amendments to their previous contract proposal.

First, they said workers would not be laid off “because of the company’s decision to contract out work.” Second, they delayed the elimination of the current health care plan by one year.

In addition, the company added a clause to the latest offer saying “eligible employees will return to work within 10 days of the date the contract is ratified.”

“That provision made a lot of us pretty mad,” said Tracy Hampson, who has worked at American Crystal for more than 30 years. “It means there’s no guarantee that the company will call any one of us back. What is an ‘eligible’ worker? We don’t know.” During the October 24-25 negotiations, according to Mel Morris, a union negotiator from East Grand Forks, the company refused to clarify the meaning of “eligible,” saying it would do so after the contract was approved.

American Crystal spokesman Brian Ingulsrud told the Militant he was surprised by the workers’ rejection of what he called a “very fair offer.”

“The union is not being reasonable,” Ingulsrud said. “We are trying to adapt to a changing world, become more efficient.”

Asked about the meaning of “eligible” Ingulsrud told the Militant that it was a “total misunderstanding.” The new clause he said, is about “differentiating between those who normally work during the harvest time and those who don’t.” Ingulsrud claimed the union never asked for clarification.

According to Brad Knapper, who is locked out from the Moorhead, Minn., plant and a member of the union’s negotiating team, the company refused to discuss the union’s counterproposal, which included 20 modifications to the company’s concessions demands.

The company is pressing to weaken job security and increase health care costs for workers. Their contract proposal includes a clause saying the higher health insurance costs could be raised even further “from time to time.”

American Crystal is demanding the elimination of retiree medical benefits and one less week of vacation for new hires, according to Gayln Olson, president of BCTGM Local 372. Among other concessions, Olsen said, the company’s contract proposal would end seniority as the criteria for recalling laid-off workers and force the union to pay arbiter fees and expenses if it loses a grievance.  
‘Have to draw the line somewhere’
“In previous contracts the union made lots of concessions to maintain our health care,” said Ciro de la Garza, from the Hillsboro plant. “You have to draw the line somewhere.”

American Crystal enjoys tacit backing from local politicians.

The North Dakota Senate Delayed Bills Committee blocked a union-backed bill allowing locked-out workers from the two American Crystal plants in North Dakota to receive unemployment benefits to come before the special session of the legislature.

Federal and local politicians were largely silent for months following the bosses lockout of 1,300 workers.

After the contract rejection, U.S. senators Democrat Kent Conrad and Republican John Hoeven of North Dakota, and U.S. senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar and Congressman Collin Peterson, all Democrats from Minnesota, called for “both sides” to get back to the negotiating table.

Conrad, a senior member of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee, expressed worry that if the dispute drags on too long, it could affect putting together a new federal farm bill after the current one expires in 2012, according to the November 3 Plains Daily Report.

For the first time, Conrad showed some concern with the company’s obstinate position. The “company needs to think long and hard about the consequences, about the implications of their strategy,” he told the Grand Forks Herald.

“I’m not sure if that’s a threat or not,” Ingulsrud responded, according to the Herald. “We’ve always had a very good working relationship with Senator Conrad… . He understands we need to position the company for future success.”

The union continues to organize support and get out their side of the story. At a recent regional meeting of the BCTGM in Indianapolis more than $6,000 was raised. The union hall in Grand Forks has also received dozens of donations totaling close to $35,000 over the past week from BCTGM locals from across the U.S. and Canada.

Boilermakers Local 647 in Ramsey, Minn., sent a check for $5,000; checks for $1,000 each came from the American Federation of Teachers Staff Union in Washington, D.C., and Local 1163 of the United Steelworkers in Colquet, Minn.

A union-organized food drive has been crucial for sustaining locked-out workers denied unemployment benefits in North Dakota.

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.  
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