FARGO, N.D. (AP) — For nearly 11 months, they picketed in sub-zero temperatures, marched on company headquarters, prayed with religious leaders and traveled 200 miles on a hay wagon. Now, the locked-out union workers at American Crystal Sugar Co. will decide whether they're tired of walking and talking.
The union has scheduled a third vote Saturday on a contract that triggered the first labor impasse in 30 years at the largest sugar beet processor in the country.
On Aug. 1, American Crystal kicked out about 1,300 workers in what a vice president called a proactive move.
Experts say it's a successful strategy that has become popular with employers throughout the country, with 17 lockouts in 2011. Robert Combs, a researcher for Bloomberg BNA, reports that the percentage of lockouts to work stoppages was greater in 2010-11 (nearly 10 percent) than between 2000-2009 (5.5 percent) and 1990-1999 (4 percent).
"Lockouts, which were once fairly rare, are the epitome of employer attempts to control bargaining and be on the offensive," said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "I see this as a continuation of the trend toward increased employer militancy in collective bargaining."
American Crystal spokesman Brian Ingulsrud said the lockout was a business decision based upon the start of the beet processing season. The company also says the contract — twice rejected by overwhelming margins — is a good one.
"We felt that we couldn't allow the union to be in a position to strike at any time once we started the processing campaign," Ingulsrud said. "We felt very vulnerable with that position. Once the beets are harvested, it's critical that the factories are running and continuing to process those beats. They're perishable items."
The company has been using replacement workers at plants in East Grand Forks, Moorhead, Crookston and Chaska, Minn.; Hillsboro and Drayton, N.D.; and Mason City, Iowa.
Early on, union representatives for the sugar workers argued about health care and benefits, but have since focused on seniority and job security. After the last negotiating session led by a federal mediator on June 8, the company issued a press release that said, "The parties remain far apart."
Mark Froemke, a Crystal Sugar employee and union member for nearly 35 years, believes the animosity between workers and management is at an all-time high. Attacks on labor stretch from coast to coast and corporations have decided to "strike while the iron is hot," he said.
"When you get hit 75 different ways that unions are bad, that unions get things that other people don't get, it's easy for people to believe that the unions, instead of being part of the solution, are part of the problem," Froemke said.
Chaison said employers first attempted to control bargaining in the 1980s by demanding wage and benefit givebacks, as well as wage freezes. That trend abated in the 1990s, but started up again with "increased vigor" at the turn of the century, he said.
"Employers were making demands in bargaining, and all that unions could do was react and often agree to wage freezes or cuts, or reduced benefits in order to avoid layoffs," Chaison said.
Workers in Minnesota received news recently that unemployment benefits scheduled to run out Sunday will likely be extended for another 14 weeks. But unlike Minnesota and Iowa, there's no unemployment insurance in North Dakota.
"I'm very proud of the way people have hung in there," said John Riskey, president of one of the labor unions that represents the workers. "We're still moving ahead and giving it the best we can."
Should the union approve the contract Saturday, Ingulsrud said the two sides would need to iron out a "back to work" agreement, which he describes as "relatively straightforward."
If it is rejected, Ingulsrud said the company would continue to train replacement workers, which is happening in advance of the next processing season. The plants will likely start up in the middle of August, which is earlier than normal because of a large sugar beet crop.
Riskey and Froemke declined to offer predictions about Saturday's union vote.
"I'm not going down the road. Let the people decide," Riskey said.
Froemke instead spoke to the character of his fellow union members.
"Their courage and their dedication to their beliefs should never be pooh-poohed or considered a foolish cause," he said.