1,300 workers locked out at American Crystal Sugar

August 1, 2011 - 2:43 PM
American Crystal Sugar Vote

Employees are locked out of work as security guards block the entrance to of American Crystal Sugar in Mason City, Iowa, on Monday, Aug. 1, 2011. (AP Photo/The Globe Gazette, Arian Schuessler)

MOORHEAD, Minn. (AP) — Replacement workers were on the job at seven American Crystal Sugar plants and some employees were picketing outside them Monday, after about 1,300 union members were locked out of facilities in Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa.

The union's contract expired at midnight Sunday after workers overwhelmingly rejected what the company called its final offer. The largest beet sugar processor in the U.S. had offered a 17 percent pay increase over five years, but workers were upset about provisions covering job security and health care costs.

Although American Crystal accounts for 38 percent of the country's production of sugar from beets and 15 percent overall, the company said it doesn't believe the lockout will affect sugar production or the industry outlook. Brian Ingulsrud, vice president for administration, said experienced workers are coming in from around the country and many will receive additional training.

"We don't intend to miss a beat," Ingulsrud said.

The union disagreed that employees were easily replaceable.

"The jobs we do, it's not rocket science, nor are we brain surgeons," union representative Mark Froemke said Monday. "But the jobs we do in the factory are very skillful jobs. I just don't believe they are going to be able to run five factories with transient workers who have never been in a sugar factory."

The company has plants in East Grand Forks, Moorhead, Crookston and Chaska, Minn., and in Hillsboro and Drayton, N.D. and Mason City, Iowa. Replacement workers arrived before dawn Monday.

Security guards were posted at entrances to a plant in East Grand Forks, and union employees have been told to not cross a line that was spray-painted outside the doors. Froemke said about 120 workers were turned away Sunday night and Monday morning at the East Grand Forks plant.

Some workers were picketing Monday morning. No incidents were reported by law enforcement.

Thomas Rohde, who works in the packaging department at the Moorhead plant, was among those carrying signs Monday morning that said, "No Lock Out." Rhode and other workers said the issue is about what they called corporate control, not money.

"This is about a loss of workers' rights," said Rohde, 40, who has worked for the company for nine months.

Ingulsrud said the company is "shocked and surprised" that employees rejected the deal.

"We offered what we thought was a terrific contract," he said. "Where do we go from here? I'm not sure."

Froemke said employees are upset about language in the contract on job security, as well as increased costs in health care and short term disability.

"This is a brutal contract," he said. "This is the destruction of 70 years of negotiations."

Ingulsrud said workers are being asked to pay more for health care, but claims it's a better plan than most. He highlighted the 17 percent increase in pay over the five-year span of the contract, and a clause that would not allow the company to hire subcontractors if it meant the loss of any union employee's job.

"We went back and modified the language that caused them concern," Ingulsrud said.

American Crystal Sugar is a cooperative owned by about 3,000 shareholders who raise 500,000 acres of sugar beets in the Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota. Those two states produce more than 50 percent of the nation's sugar beets, according to researchers at North Dakota State University.

Froemke said he doesn't blame the sugar beet farmers in the cooperative.

"They are friends, they are neighbors, they are relatives," he said. "We just hope that they take a step back, look at this company they own, and signify to their board and their management that we should get this thing put together."