Crystal Union workers reject contractBy a 90 percent majority vote, union members Tuesday rejected the amended contract proposals American Crystal Sugar Co. offered last month, according to union official John Riskey
By: By Stephen J. Lee, Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
By a 90 percent majority vote, union members Tuesday rejected the amended contract proposals American Crystal Sugar Co. offered last month, according to union official John Riskey
“Today our members sent a loud and clear message to American Crystal executives,” Riskey said, reading a prepared statement to reporters outside the union’s office in downtown Grand Forks. “We want to work, but we will not accept a contract that puts our jobs and the entire community at risk.”
He is president for the union local representing workers at Crystal factories in East Grand Forks, Moorhead and Drayton, N.D. Workers at factories in Crookston and Hillsboro, N.D., are represented by different locals. Crystal also has smaller facilities in Chaska, Minn., and Mason City, Iowa.
Crystal’s Vice President of Administration Brian Ingulsrud, who has represented the company during negotiations, said Tuesday following the vote: “I was hoping that our employees would have voted to get back to work. So I’m disappointed that didn’t happen.”
The Moorhead-based cooperative, the nation’s largest sugar beet processor, locked out the approximately 1,300 union employees Aug. 1, the day after the workers voted down the company’s five-year contract by a reported 96 percent majority.
Union members have been manning picket sites around the five factories in the Red River Valley since the lock-out began and have said they will do it all winter if necessary.
Ball in ‘their court’
After talks in late August led to nothing, company and union officials met again last week in Fargo with a federal negotiator. The result were the contract proposal voted on Tuesday.
The company made two substantial changes addressing union concerns, Ingulsrud said, and it kept previously offered wage increases of 4 percent the first year, 3 percent the second year and 2 percent each of the final three years of the contract.
First, the company offered a guarantee that no union jobs or members would be cut due to sub-contracting certain work at the processing plants. Second, it agreed to offer free health insurance for 14 more months. After that, employees would pay 17 percent of the insurance premiums, while the company would pay 83 percent, which is what non-union Crystal employees now pay, including management, company officials say.
But Riskey said the company’s new proposals weren’t enough and that the union had offered 20 items last week that were ignored by Crystal. He would not give details about the 20 items.
“If the company executives are serious about getting us back to work, they should return to the negotiating table immediately with real compromises, not just repackaged versions of a contract that has now been rejected twice,” Riskey said in his prepared comments.
“The ball is in their court,” he added in interviews with reporters.
Ingulsrud said the opposite is the case.
“We made significant moves,” he said. “We are the last one with a concrete proposal here. The union said they came with 20 changes, yet they were never willing to make any of those 20 proposals public and I think the reason why is that they were quite immaterial.”
There are no further talks planned, Ingulsrud said.
Paul Harney, Grand Forks, joined the union and started working at Crystal’s East Grand Forks plant just a year ago, he said.
“I voted ‘no,’” he said. “It’s the language (in the contract.) It’s just terrible. They changed the words around, but it means the same.”
A reference to “all eligible employees” being recalled to work bothers him, Harney said. “So what does ‘eligible employees’ mean?”
It appears to him Crystal could make anyone ineligible under the new contract, he said.
Scott Ripplinger, Manvel, N.D., would be in his 28th year working at the East Grand Forks plant, if not for the lock-out, he said outside the union office Tuesday.
He’s served on union negotiating teams over the years, but it seems Crystal’s corporate leadership has changed its attitude in the past year or two, he said. “Just the way they treat our negotiating team, it’s like they have no respect for us,” he said.
But Ingulsrud said there should be no concern about the contract’s language on eligible employees and the company values its union employees.
“Our intention was to call back all our union employees and for them to suggest otherwise is simply not true.”
The company is prepared to complete the processing campaign, which lasts into May, with replacement workers if necessary, Ingulsrud said. “But our first priority is to get our employees back to work.”
Some union members interviewed last week predicted a vote perhaps as low as 75 percent against the new contract, partly because many are tired of being out of work and need their paychecks.
Because he works for a Minnesota facility, he collects unemployment pay through the state, Ripplinger said.
But employees of the two North Dakota plants do not receive unemployment compensation because the state doesn’t allow it during labor disputes.
Riskey said the union has been holding food drives and passing on support as it can, especially to the North Dakota factory workers locked out.
Union supporters from across the nation, “not just union members,” but members of the public, have been “very generous,” in donating cash and goods, he said, although he declined to reveal how much.
The fact that only 92 percent of the union members voted likely reflects what he knows anecdotally, that some locked-out workers have moved on, either retiring or taking other jobs, Riskey said.
But the fact that 90 percent of voters agreed to reject the amended contract shows the union remains strong and united, Riskey said.
“We’re ready to go all winter,” he said of the picketing outside the factories. “We’ve already purchased some heated sheds.”
Stephen J. Lee is a reporter
at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.