Non-union Crystal employees claim harassmentTwo non-union American Crystal Sugar Co. workers claim they and a third non-union worker were called names and threatened with retribution by picketing union workers while holding up their own signs this week outside the company’s sugar processing plant in Hillsboro.
By: By Ryan Schuster, Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
Two non-union American Crystal Sugar Co. workers claim they and a third non-union worker were called names and threatened with retribution by picketing union workers while holding up their own signs this week outside the company’s sugar processing plant in Hillsboro.
Janitors Karen Seablom and Char Hoff, who are not union members but work in positions represented by the union contract, said they were picketing to show their displeasure with being locked out of their jobs along with union workers.
Seablom, Hoff and a third non-union worker joined picketing union workers at the plant on Monday — the day American Crystal first locked out workers.
Seablom held up a pink sign that read “The union vote took my job I want it back.” Hoff held up a sign that read “Stop the bull we just want to work.”
“They called us scabs; they called us rats,” Seablom said. “They used a lot of words I don’t want to use.”
Gayln Olson, the local union president who represents the Hillsboro plant, said he was not at the factory when the alleged incident occurred. He said he heard from union members at the plant that the non-union employees were asked what they were doing and if they wanted to join the union. Olson said he did not have any direct knowledge of the alleged abusive language or threats made against the non-union workers.
Seablom, 66, said she and the other non-union employees did not intend to offend union members, but were simply expressing their opinions.
“I wasn’t picketing against the union,” she said. “I was picketing the fact I’m locked out, too. We wanted non-union employees’ voice spoken that we wanted our jobs back.”
Olson stressed that the company and not the union locked out the workers. He also pointed out that the workers could have voted on the proposal if they had joined the union.
“Were people upset about (non-union workers picketing)? Of course they were,” Olson said. “That is a form of union bashing.”
The vast majority of the locked out workers are among the approximately 1,300 union employees at the nation’s largest sugar beet producer, which has processing plants in East Grand Forks and Moorhead in Minnesota and Drayton, Hillsboro in North Dakota and packaging and transportation sites in Chaska, Minn., and Mason City, Iowa. Of the 206 year-round union-represented workers at the Hillsboro plant, Olson says about 200 are members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International Union, with a number of new members joining up since the lockout started.
Union officials say the verbal exchange at the Hillsboro plant was an isolated incident and that they did not know of other similar occurrences at other American Crystal plants. Union representatives say there have not been any altercations between union picketers and replacement workers.
Pro-union supporters did picket outside a Grand Forks hotel that houses replacement workers this week, but there were no reported incidents.
“It’s basically to ask them to rethink why they would come to our neck of the woods to be used as a labor force to destroy our community and take our jobs,” said Mark Froemke, a union spokesperson who is affiliated with the AFL-CIO of Minnesota while on leave from the American Crystal plant in East Grand Forks.
The company locked out its union contract employees after their contract expired without an agreement on the heels of a union vote that overwhelmingly rejected the company’s last contract offer a week ago. American Crystal has contracted with Strom Engineering of Minnetonka, Minn., to bring in out-of-area replacement workers during the lockout.
Union officials have expressed a willingness to return to the negotiating table, but no talks have been scheduled between the two sides. The company has signaled publicly that it is comfortable continuing to use replacement workers.
Hoff, who works part of the year in a union represented position, hadn’t been called back for the fall campaign yet when the lockout occurred. But she said she lost her summer job because she picketed outside the plant and she said her husband’s job was also threatened by union supporters if she continued picketing.
Hoff said she was partners with another woman in the seasonal Chicken Shack business that leases a building at Hillsboro’s campground and RV park until this week when the partner asked her to leave the business following complaints from union supporters.
“I already lost my first job because of the union vote,” Hoff said. “It’s pretty sad when they have to attack my summer job.”
Olson, the local union president at the Hillsboro plant, said he personally didn’t have anything to do with Hoff leaving her other job and that there isn’t anything he can do about the situation.
“I don’t want to see anyone lose their job,” he said.
Hoff also said a union supporter threatened to contact her husband’s customers and make sure he lost his job if she showed up on the picket line again.
Seablom and Hoff said they haven’t returned to the picket line since Monday and they don’t intend to do so.
The two non-union workers, who were both once members of the union before dropping out, say the experience has soured them and they don’t plan to rejoin the union.
“We knew this wasn’t going to be real popular,” Seablom said. “But we just thought as union employees they would respect our rights just as we were respecting theirs.”
Ryan Schuster is a reporter at
the Grand Forks Herald,
which is owned by
Forum Communications Co.