American Crystal Sugar appears to be losing favor in Congress at a time when the company needs it most. With the federal Farm Bill stalled in the House of Representatives, 37 members of Congress, including Minnesota Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison, advised Crystal Sugar CEO Dave Berg to get serious about finding “common ground” with the 1,300 union workers locked out of their jobs for nearly 14 months.
In a letter addressed to Berg and union negotiator Steve Bertelli, federal lawmakers noted the union’s “willingness to meet and discuss the issues,” and called Crystal Sugar’s take-it-or-leave-it approach to negotiations “troubling.”
“A final agreement requires negotiation,” the letter says. “It is incumbent upon the parties to bargain in good faith and genuinely seek to find common ground so that a final agreement can be reached.”
Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Reps. Collin Peterson and Tim Walz sent a similar letter to Berg and Bertelli last month.
Moorhead-based Crystal Sugar locked out its workers Aug. 1, 2011, after members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union voted overwhelmingly to reject the company’s final contract offer.
The two sides have met occasionally since then, and union negotiators have agreed to meet most of the company’s demands for economic concessions, including higher health care premiums.
Rather than meet workers in the middle, Crystal Sugar countered with no notable changes to its offer, and workers have voted twice to reject it since the lockout began. They say Crystal Sugar insists on contract language that will give management the authority to contract out union members’ jobs, ignore seniority in personnel decisions and bypass hard-fought grievance procedures.
Although Crystal Sugar is seeking to strip its workers of their safety net, the farmer-owned cooperative is lobbying fiercely in Washington D.C. to protect a safety net of its own.
Provisions in the federal Farm Bill known as the Sugar Program keep sugar prices artificially high by limiting domestic producers’ exposure to foreign competition. Many in Congress view the Sugar Program as an unnecessary intervention in the free market, but supporters call it a necessary boost for rural economies.
Those supporters include many urban, pro-labor lawmakers like Ellison and McCollum. But with the current Farm Bill likely to expire at the end of the month, Crystal Sugar’s lockout isn’t helping efforts to get a new Farm Bill passed into law.
Locked-out Crystal Sugar workers picket outside a Crystal Sugar shareholder’s home in Crookston.
The lockout “isn’t in the best interests of working people, and it’s not in the best interests of the Sugar Program,” said Bill Harper, McCollum’s chief of staff.
Ellison said the labor dispute is “pulling apart the building blocks of a good relationship” that has served workers and farmers well in the past.
“The company and the workers have always been supportive of the Sugar Program because it’s made the company profitable and, historically, has allowed the company to pay the workers in a way that’s fair,” Ellison said. “If they want to break that arrangement, it’s not going to help anyone.”
Perhaps with an eye toward going it alone on Capitol Hill, Crystal Sugar has spent more than $1.8 million on federal campaign contributions this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In a letter sent Aug. 21, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called on labor-endorsed members of Congress who received Crystal Sugar cash to use their “influence and stature to insist that the company resolve this dispute immediately and end the lockout” – and to return the donation if Crystal Sugar refuses.
McCollum is among a handful of lawmakers who have returned the cash, Harper said.
Ellison, meanwhile, holds out hope that continued pressure from members of Congress who have worked with the company in the past will prod Berg and Crystal Sugar’s farmer-shareholders toward the middle ground in negotiations.
“Why would they not want to do the right thing by the union?” Ellison said, recalling two speeches he made on the House floor about the lockout. “This is a question I’ve raised and I’m going to continue to raise.”