When American Crystal Sugar locked out some 1,300 members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union at its facilities in Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa, those working at the company’s two plants in North Dakota were denied jobless compensation by the state job service.
The pretext for the denial was an interpretation of a 1981 law that said employees who are not working “due to a strike, sympathy strike, or work stoppage dispute of any kind which exists because of a labor dispute” would not be eligible for unemployment compensation. The American Crystal case was the first time the state job service sought to withhold benefits to locked-out workers on that basis.
Initially upheld in a district court decision, the benefits’ denial was overturned 3-2 by the state Supreme Court Feb. 26. More than 400 workers were locked out in North Dakota. It’s unclear how many will receive benefits of up to $10,400 at this point.
“Finally, after 19 months of being locked out, we won a little piece of justice,” Gayln Olson, president of BCTGM Local 372G, said in a phone interview.
“When the call came in there was elation in the Hillsboro union hall,” said Terry Holm, who recently retired from the American Crystal Sugar plant in Hillsboro, N.D. “Right away we got on the phones letting people know what happened.”
“Spirits were higher than they’ve been in a long time,” said Wayne Netterlund, who recently retired from the plant in Drayton, N.D., after 36 years. “The overall support is not as high as a year ago when we were carrying out more activity and fewer of us had gotten other jobs.”
The sugar workers have four times rejected a company contract offer that included major concessions in health care, seniority rights and contracting work outside the union.
Like the rest of the 1,300 workers, those in North Dakota have received a $100 weekly stipend from the union. To supplement this, many in North Dakota have relied on union-organized collections of food and funds to cover basic necessities. As the lockout dragged on, hundreds of workers found other jobs, or were pressed into early retirement.
The court decision will not affect the company’s stance on contract negotiation with the union, company spokesperson Brian Ingulsrud told the Forum News Service Feb. 27. “We’ve moved on with normal business operations with new employees.”
Meanwhile, two replacement workers were burned Jan. 29 while working at the company’s plant in East Grand Forks, Minn.
One of these workers was seriously injured. While his name has not been released, the press has reported he was from Chicago and employed by Strom Engineering, a scab-herding agency contracted by American Crystal since the beginning of the lockout. He was in “critical but stable” condition, Agweek reported Feb. 7.
Over the course of the lockout there has been a series of fires and other safety incidents, which union officials have blamed on the bosses’ drive for production without an experienced workforce.
“This took a week to hit the news,” Randy Anderson, a sugar worker locked-out in Drayton, told the Militant.
Tom Fiske contributed to this article.
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