The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 75/No. 30      August 22, 2011

Workers fight lockout
by American Crystal Sugar
(front page)
HILLSBORO, North Dakota—“There’s nothing good in this contract. That’s why we rejected it,” said Adam Gettel, 26, as he picketed in front of the American Crystal Sugar factory here.

Gettel is one of 1,300 union workers locked out since August 1 at five sugar plants in the Red River Valley region of Minnesota (Crookston, Moorhead, East Grand Forks) and North Dakota (Hillsboro, Drayton). Workers are also locked out at two smaller processing plants in Chaska, a suburb of Minneapolis, and in Mason City, Iowa. American Crystal is the largest beet-sugar producer in the United States.

By a margin of 96 percent, more than 1,200 workers voted July 30 to reject the company’s “final” contract offer. The workers are members of five locals of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM).

Asked why he voted no, Dan Miller said, “There’s not one issue, the whole package was rotten. It was 40-plus pages of takeaways.” He said the company “brought up wages at the end of negotiations and then tried to bribe us with a $2,000 signing bonus.”

“That was aimed at the public, to make it look like a good offer,” added picket Stacey Agnew, with 26 years in the plant. “What we gain in wages—4 percent the first year, 3 percent the second, and 2 percent each following year—would be taken away by increases in the company’s proposed health-care plan.”

The union reports that higher premiums, out-of-pocket expenses, and larger deductibles would double health-care costs for members.

If that weren’t enough, the company has cut off medical coverage for locked-out workers. Picket Barb Willison said that when she went to fill a prescription for heart medicine for her husband the evening of the contract vote, she was told the next 90-day supply will cost more than $500.

“We offered what we thought was a terrific contract,” Brian Ingulsrud, vice-president of American Crystal Sugar, told Associated Press. He said the company is “shocked and surprised” at the vote results.

According to Agweek, tensions escalated in the plants after the company introduced “shadowers,” or scabs, to learn workers’ jobs as part of its “contingency plan.” On July 18 Ingulsrud notified union workers to clear out their lockers and workspaces. The next day workers were told that “non-union personnel would be on-site during the week to observe various positions,” Agweek reported.

On the first day of the lockout, American Crystal began bringing in vanloads of “replacement workers.” They were hired by Strom Engineering, an anti-labor, scab-supply outfit.

In the days and weeks leading up to the contract deadline, hundreds of sugar workers organized protests in towns where the plants are located.

American Crystal is also demanding the ability to outsource work, to replace union work with nonunion contract workers, and to erode seniority. “The company would have sole discretion on seniority rights,” Ross Perrin, chief steward at the Moorhead plant, told the Militant in an interview in the basement of Howard Johnson’s, a temporary union headquarters in Fargo, North Dakota.

Workers at American Crystal are organized into two tiers: year-round employees and so-called campaign workers, who work from the fall harvest through the beet-slicing campaign the next spring and receive worse wages and benefits. There are currently about 1,000 full-time and 263 campaign workers.

Under the prior contract, a worker qualifies as full time after working 75 percent of scheduled workdays in a year. The company is now seeking to raise the bar to 85 percent for all future workers.

That would mean a widening of the two-tier system,” said Doyle Heden, a locked-out union member.

Support for the locked-out BCTGM members is visible at the picket lines, both from union and nonunion workers. People driving by honk and give the thumbs up. Some donate water and food. In Moorhead a worker stopped his car in front of the pickets, rolled down his window, and yelled: “My union, the IBEW, called me and told me to come join the picket line.”

In Hillsboro signs expressing solidarity are up in the town’s bars. The owner of a block of stores donated an empty storefront to the union, which is now its headquarters.

In a letter to all locals in Teamsters Joint Council 32, covering Minnesota, Iowa, and North and South Dakota, council president Susan Mauren wrote: “We are asking that Teamsters do not provide services or make deliveries to any of the American Crystal Sugar facilities during this lockout.”
Related articles:
45,000 strike against Verizon’s takebacks
‘They’re coming after all us workers’
Illinois uranium workers: ‘We fought a good fight’
Leader of Roquette struggle backs sugar workers
Corn-processing workers in Iowa discuss lessons of recent lockout fight
On the Picket Line  
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