TruthToTell, Mon., Dec 19 @9AM: CRYSTAL SUGAR LOCKOUT: No Sweet Deal on the Table-AUDIO BELOW

On-air date: 
Mon, 12/19/2011
American Crystal workers want to work.

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This final week before Christmas brings into sharper relief than usual the plight of giant Red River cooperative American Crystal Sugar’s lockout of its 1,300 workers – still going as it has since August 1, the day after the members of the consolidated union, Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM), rejected the company’s final offer by a 96% margin. Talks are suspended, despite Governor Mark Dayton's letter offering to help with negotiations. The company did not respond and a federal mediator asked that the Governor not be involved. Crystal has plants in both Minnesota and North Dakota.

This is a break with the long company tradition of cooperation between the long-time farmer-owned sugar beet processing* co-op and its organized workers. This was hardly the time to leave the bargaining table, but American Crystal Sugar’s management, especially President/CEO Dave Berg and his chief administrative VP, Brian Ingulsrud, have decided, they say, to go with replacement workers, all of them nonunion and inexperienced, according to insiders.


Lockouts appear to be the coming thing as a way to pressure already stressed workers into caving into company demands that wage cuts, health care burdens and reduced pensions all be accepted as concessions to the lousy economic times the company claims are stifling profits. It seems contrary to reports since the lockout began that American Crystal enjoys record profits after a banner crop of sugar beets and significant contracts for their sugar product as well as a fair jump in pay granted to senior executives.

The issues here are rippling across Minnesota and North Dakota as unemployment compensation benefits dry up for the Minnesota-side workers. North Dakota’s workers remain out of work without unemployment benefits because of the definition that state’s laws give the type of work stoppage at American Crystal.

Fewer and fewer American workers are creating the goods and performing the services we consume. Most of the core work of this society is being shipped elsewhere, reducing real income and economic stability for those left behind. Like the P-9 union working for Hormel Meats in Austin, the sugar workers and the farmers who own Crystal Sugar for decades enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. This is disintegrating in the current climate, a climate that leads to statements like that uttered by Crystal CEO in effect, they say, likening the workers to “a 21-pound cancerous tumor.”

As unions membership diminishes and strikes and lockouts have left even fewer workers members of unions, rank and file workers and their leadership have shown a willingness to ignore long-term effects of their work on environments and health as long as work is created.

“Jobs!” has become the rallying cry for conservatives and corporations insisting that if government and workers fail to yield to demanded concessions and bailouts, everyone will be out of a job. This sort of thing scares politicians and a jobless workforce into conceding and redirecting wealth to the already wealthy. In fact, more union members are voting for Republicans or Tea Party candidates these days than their traditional cheerleading Democrats.

What are the issues causing such a serious split between this huge cooperative and its workers? Is it possible to resolve this dispute as long as a lockout is allowed and replacement workers hired? What is the definition of a cooperative like Crystal Sugar? (Land-O-Lakes, Cenex and Great River Energy are also large coops.) The BCTGM is a consolidation of several unions seeking strength in numbers. Where is that strength in the face of the company’s lockout tactic?

Where will this take us? Have corporations grown so large and powerful and unions less and less relevant that fair resolution of labor stoppages is less likely now and later?

On-air guests: 

MARK FROEMKE – President, AFL-CIO West Minnesota Area Labor Council and Representative of the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) Union

NIEL RITCHIE – Executive Director, League of Rural Voters

Our attempts to invite American Crystal Sugar executives CEO DAVE BERG and Vice President of Administration BRIAN INGULSRUD were unsuccessful.