Until Aug. 1, when 1,300 American Crystal Sugar workers across three states were locked out by management, the successful Red River Valley-based sugar beet industry was viewed as an example of how cooperation between labor and management could yield sweet results. U.S. Sen. Al Franken warns that the lockout may undermine consensus in Congress for some of the sugar industry protections that have made it so profitable.
“There are members of Congress whose natural constituency is agriculture; some who see themselves as champions of business, and others who fight for workers,” Franken wrote in an editorial at the Grand Forks Herald late last week. “Knowing that the program has worked so well for so many years for the hardworking growers who produce such a large percentage of our nation’s sugar beets and for the dedicated workers and skilled management, who turn those beets into the highest quality sugar in the world, has played no small role in creating this consensus.”
Franken said the lockout is threatening to “to tear at the fabric of this partnership” between labor, farmers and the company, which has made the industry incredibly successful in recent years.
“If the three-way partnership is allowed to dissolve, so may the consensus on the successful sugar program, which has been so instrumental to prosperity in the valley,” Franken wrote. “As harvest approaches, it is time for the growers and management to discuss whether continuing this lockout is in the industry’s or the valley’s best interest. It may not be worth the risk – to the community or to the survival of the sugar program.”
Franken called for parties to again come to the table for negotiations. A spokesperson from the office of U.S. Rep. Colin Peterson told the Minnesota Independent last week that the congressman, who represents the region, is also urging both parties to resume talks.
The union and the company met last week for the first time since the lockout, at the urging of a federal mediator. No progress was made in last week’s discussions, and American Crystal Sugar says they have no plans for further meetings.
The company has brought in replacement workers from Minnetonka-based Strom Engineering to operate the plants during the height of sugar beet harvesting season.
Union members were locked out by American Crystal Sugar after they rejected a contract proposal at the end of July. The lockout affects union workers at facilities in Moorhead, East Grand Forks, Crookston and Chaska, Minn.; Hillsboro and Drayton, N.D.; and Mason City, Iowa.