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American Crystal Sugar Lock-out
Sugar worker lock-out approaches five months

From the Minneapolis Labor Review, December 30, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS — January 1 will mark five months since American Crystal Sugar locked out 1,300 union workers from their jobs.

The workers are members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco and Grain Millers union who work at American Crystal Sugar facilities in North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.

The workers twice have  voted to reject company contract offers by resounding 90 percent margins, charging that the contracts are union-busting measures.

The company locked-out the workers August 1 and recently began advertising for permanent replacement workers.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton offered to step in to personally help mediate a settlement beginning December 13.

The presidents of three of the affected BCTGM locals immediately accepted the Governor’s offer and issued a joint statement: “We hope American Crystal Sugar executives will also accept the Governor’s offer.  We are ready to get back to work with a contract that is fair to workers, the company, growers, and the community.”

As the Labor Review went to press December 14, American Crystal Sugar had not responded to Governor Dayton’s offer.

The virulent anti-union stance of American Crystal Sugar CEO Dave Berg was revealed in a speech he made to company shareholders, which was taped and made public the last week of November.

In a meeting of company shareholders November 7 in Grafton, North Dakota, Berg likened the workers to a 21-pound cancerous tumor. According to an audio recording of the meeting, Berg told the story of a sick friend who was diagnosed with cancer and had a massive tumor removed. “That’s a scary deal. He was sick for a long time,” said Berg. “We can’t let a labor contract make us sick forever and ever and ever. We have to treat the disease and that’s what we’re doing here.”

Berg, whose own compensation has grown from $700,000 to $2.44 million in just four years, according to Bloomberg.com, sparked nationwide outrage with the comments.

American Crystal Sugar workers responded with disappointment and anger at Berg’s remarks. Sarah Gust, a 40-year employee, remarked, “the fact that Dave Berg would refer to our union, our contract as a cancerous tumor is deeply offensive to me and many of my co-workers. Some of us have had cancer or have lost loved ones to cancer. It’s a tragic, devastating disease. And that’s how Crystal Sugar management sees our union. I tell you, this just shows how much respect Dave Berg and the management have for us workers.”

Berg went on to say that the company had a long term strategy to deal with the union. “Joe [Talley, CFO] and I and others... many, many, many others mapped this out a long time ago,” he said. He told shareholders that his strategy would be costly, “it is expensive. We’re investing a lot of your money so you’ll be more profitable in the future.” He repeated his cancer analogy again, saying “At some point that tumors got to come out. That’s what we’re doing.”

News of the offensive remarks came the week after the company began placing help wanted ads in local newspapers in the Red River Valley and also in the Star Tribune. The company said it was moving to the next phase of its “contingency plan” by offering wages significantly below those of locked-out workers.

 “This is just Crystal Sugar executives’ cynical attempt to demoralize locked-out workers, depress local labor standards, and drive a wedge between us and our neighbors,” said Ken Lamberson, who has worked for American Crystal Sugar for 16 years. “Our contract represents years of struggle to protect good jobs at Crystal and build a mutually respectful relationship with management. Now, Dave Berg is throwing all of that away for greed.”

At a meeting with Governor Dayton December 3, the union released a report documenting the economic impact of the lock-out on the workers and the region.

According to the report, “instead of continuing negotiations with its employees, Crystal Sugar has made increasing profits and compensation for its executives the priority.  The Company has hired inexperienced, non-union contract workers and is turning a blind eye to the wider economic fallout, which to date totals an estimated $30.5 million.”

Families of locked-out workers are losing $1,000 to $2,300 per month. The local economy of the Red River Valley has had direct losses of nearly $12 million during the first four months of the lockout, according to the report. Minnesota has lost an estimated $6.5 million and North Dakota an estimated $5.4 million. Indirect and induced losses are estimated at $18.7 million —an additional $10.2 million for Minnesota and $8.5 million for North Dakota.

Locked out workers are enlisting the support of their communities and union members across the United States, raising funds to support workers and their families for however long it takes to end the lock-out and win a fair contract.

A Twin Cities fundraiser sponsored by local unions November 29 netted more than $22,000 in donations for locked-out workers. Crystal Sugar worker Ken Lamberson thanked the large crowd of union leaders and rank-and-file members. “At one point it was just a union and a neighborhood I belonged to,” he said. “Now I’ve seen everyone else stand up… What you guys are doing is appreciated.”

To donate to a fund for the locked-out workers, send checks payable to “Minnesota AFL-CIO” to 175 Aurora Ave., St. Paul, MN 55103. In the memo line, print “BCTGM Lockout 2011.”

 

 

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