On Jan. 16, company officials rejected the union’s effort to restart negotiations and declared their intention to “continue hiring employees to staff … long-term temporary positions.”
In response, workers have organized a stronger union presence outside American Crystal’s five sugar factories in the Red River Valley of northern Minnesota and North Dakota.
Locked-out workers organized a picket-line rally Jan. 16 of about 70 outside the East Grand Forks plant “with temperature well below zero,” Scott Ripplinger told the Militant in a phone interview. “We had about 15 on the front gate and rest of us on the back gate where the scabs usually come out.”
“When the scabs saw us, they turned around their vans and went out the front gate to avoid us,” said Tamara Johnson. “You should have seen their faces when they saw the expanded pickets.” In the coming weeks, the union will be organizing similar rallies outside other plants.
The lockout by the largest processor of sugar beets in the U.S. began Aug. 1 after workers rejected the company’s concession contract by a margin of 96 percent. Workers rejected a similar contract a few months later by 90 percent.
The company hired Strom Engineering to supply hundreds of replacement workers at its seven facilities, which include two smaller operations in southern Minnesota and Iowa. Since November, the company has been hiring local replacement workers.
Union and company representatives met Jan. 11 in the presence of a federal “mediator.” Union officials presented alternative concession proposals based on a recent survey of the membership, according a statement on the union website.
In its statement, the union said, “We are willing and ready to negotiate, any time, any place and to stay at the negotiations table until negotiations are completed.”
Five days later American Crystal rejected the union’s proposals, and sent a letter to locked-out workers claiming the union failed to negotiate in good faith and calling the union statement a “publicity stunt.”
When asked what was meant by “publicity stunt,” company spokesman Brian Ingulsrud told the Militant that it was “strange” and “disingenuous” for the union to release a statement while both sides were meeting. When asked about the content of the statement, he said he couldn’t remember what it said.
Meanwhile, American Crystal’s Jan. 13 Securities and Exchange Commission filing shows that company profits fell 28 percent in the last quarter, ending Nov. 30. The company blames lower profits on a smaller beet crop and “anticipated higher operating costs.” The union points to costs associated with hiring private cops and replacement workers from around the country.
American Crystal workers got more national attention when the Jan. 22 New York Times ran an article, “More lockouts as companies battle unions.” Under a picture of picketing sugar workers, the article begins, “America’s unionized workers, buffeted by layoffs and stagnating wages, face another phenomenon that is increasingly throwing them on the defensive: lockouts.”
In another development, Brad Knapper, a locked-out worker from the Moorhead plant, faces felony charges stemming from an incident at the picket line Dec. 20 in which he allegedly scratched a replacement worker’s car. “Brad is one of our front-line soldiers. He’s on the negotiating team, a leader of the picket lines,” said Tamara Johnson.
Knapper is scheduled to appear before the Clay County District Court on Feb. 2 at 8:30 a.m.
Union members have set up a defense fund with a goal of raising $2,500 to defend the framed-up worker. So far more than $1,000 has been raised. Donations to the defense fund can be made online at http://www.gofundme.com/d6aas.
The embattled workers continue to receive contributions and solidarity from around the country. Recently a semi-truck of food was donated from BCTGM Local 50G in Omaha, Nebraska.
Send solidarity messages and donations 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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