Crystal talks end again without any settlementDespite a long negotiating session Monday between representatives of locked-out union workers and American Crystal Sugar Co. officials, no deal was struck and both sides left the table again. As the lock out enters its seventh month Wednesday, picketing activity by union members at the five Crystal factories in the Red River Valley has slackened, with fewer huddled in small warming houses at the gates for fewer hours on fewer days.
By: By Stephen J. Lee , Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
GRAND FORKS — Despite a long negotiating session Monday between representatives of locked-out union workers and American Crystal Sugar Co. officials, no deal was struck and both sides left the table again.
As the lock out enters its seventh month Wednesday, picketing activity by union members at the five Crystal factories in the Red River Valley has slackened, with fewer huddled in small warming houses at the gates for fewer hours on fewer days.
Meanwhile, some locked-out workers have resigned from the Bakery Worker’s union in order to take non-permanent replacement jobs at the factories, according to Brian Ingulsrud, Crystal’s vice president for administration and spokesman for the negotiations.
But union leader Scott Ripplinger said the union is standing strong and members will hold a “Get Back to Work” rally at 8 a.m. Wednesday outside the front gate of the Crystal plant in East Grand Forks.
“We had a negotiating session yesterday that didn’t pan out that well,” Ripplinger said Tuesday. “We want to send the message that our members are ready to work whenever the company is ready to start things…. We haven’t given up on them and we hope they haven’t given up on us.”
Ingulsrud said Monday’s meeting between both sides in front of a federal mediator lasted seven hours. “I guess you could say there was progress, in that the union did come with proposals that were different from what they had come with before,” he said. “But that being said, they still didn’t really accept what we wanted in terms of a comprehensive proposal that addressed all of the issues we have been talking about during the negotiations.”
About 1,300 union employees were locked out Aug. 1, after 95 percent of members voted not to accept a contract proposed by management. Crystal has factories in East Grand Forks, Crookston, Moorhead, Drayton, N.D., and Hillsboro, N.D.
The union side offered concessions in agreeing to pay part of workers’ health insurance premiums, but still didn’t agree to take the same plan that management employees have, Ingulsrud said.
The company’s latest offer, made in late October, remains on the table, he said. It offers a 13-percent increase in average wages over the five years of the proposed contract, another year of free health insurance before workers would have to begin paying 17 percent of the premium costs and a guarantee that no union jobs would be lost under the new contract.
Union officials have said the health care costs would negate wage increases and the new contract takes away too much job security for workers.
“We are disappointed, but no longer surprised, at the company’s refusal to negotiate,” said Dan Kressin, a locked-out Crookston factory worker who is on the union’s negotiating team, in a news release Tuesday. “We made significant proposals that we believe address their issues. They did not bring a single new proposal to the table.”
In five meetings since late July, the union hasn’t addressed a key company concern, Ingulsrud said: “That would be the ability to promote employees based on qualifications rather than seniority.”
He said other beet sugar companies have union contracts that allow such work rules.
A new phase
Union leaders said they believe Crystal factories need union workers because picketers can see greater-than-normal amounts of “re-melt” sugar piled outside that doesn’t meet the specifications of normal sugar customers.
“There is clear evidence that replacement workers are not producing the same amount or the same quality product that we have produced in the past,” said Ross Perrin, who has worked at the Moorhead factory for 31 years, according to a news release. “How long before customers begin to pull their business if quality continues to suffer?”
Perrin said the longer the lock out continues, the more threatened the federal sugar program will be in Congress, which might hamstring the industry.
The beet processing campaign is about two-thirds complete, Ingulsrud said, meaning the few hundred workers employed only during the campaign have little chance of any work this season.
Once the campaign is over in early May, factories will begin their normal summer maintenance and repair period.
If union employees with the training and experience to do the specialized work are not back on the job, the company will have to hire outside contractors, Ingulsrud said. Such hiring “takes some lead time,” he said.
Plus, if it goes that far, such commitments will become part of any negotiations, complicating any settlement, he said.
It appears that about one in five of the replacement workers at the East Grand Forks plant are locals, hired more recently to replace the out-of-state contracted workers, Ripplinger said.
Ingulsrud won’t reveal how many local residents have been hired as long-term temporary replacement workers. “But I can tell you it’s consistently increasing all the time,” he said, and that the hiring process continues.
Stephen J. Lee is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.