Crystal Sugar lockout ends with contract ratification

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The 20-month-long lockout at American Crystal Sugar ended with workers voting to ratify the same contract offer previously proposed by management.

Fifty-five percent of the workers voting April 13 voted to accept the contract, according to their union, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers.

The latest vote was the fifth vote on the contract offer since 1,300 workers were locked out from their jobs August 1, 2011.

In the first vote, July 30, 2011, an overwhelming 96 percent of workers voted no — and were locked out the next day.

As the lock-out continued over 20 months, each of the next three votes saw a declining majority continuing to vote no.

The company brought in replacement workers to do the work of its longtime employees and refused to move from its initial offer while the locked-out workers struggled to survive on unemployment insurance or find new jobs.

Why a profitable company would lock-out its experienced workforce remains puzzling.

Workers voted four times to reject a contract with provisions they feared would lead to union-busting but, after 20 months, the fifth vote resulted in a slim majority voting to accept the company’s terms.

“This means Crystal Sugar’s skilled, experienced workers will be transitioning back to the factories to start repairing the damage that’s been done over the past 20 plus months,” said John Riskey, president of BCTGM Local 167G. “BCTGM members thank all who have supported our stand for justice and dignity and who have helped our families survive these hard times.”

American Crystal Sugar runs sugar beet processing plants in East Grand Forks, Crookston, and Moorhead, Minnesota; Hillsboro and Drayton, North Dakota and packaging and transportation sites in Chaska, Minnesota and Mason City, Iowa.

In a meeting of company shareholders November 7, 2011, Crystal Sugar CEO Dave Berg likened the workers’ previous union contract to a 21-pound cancerous tumor. “We can’t let a labor contract make us sick forever and ever and ever. We have to treat the disease and that’s what we’re doing here.”

Berg said the company had a long-term strategy to deal with the union. “…I and others… many, many, many others mapped this out a long time ago,” he said. He told shareholders that his strategy would be costly. “It is expensive. We’re investing a lot of your money so you’ll be more profitable in the future.” He repeated his cancer analogy again: “At some point that tumor has got to come out. That’s what we’re doing.”