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Strikers at JR Simplot on Gateway Drive talk with Grand Forks police officers outside the plant Tuesday. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Longer shifts top concern for Simplot workers on strike

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An official with the union representing striking J.R. Simplot Co. workers in Grand Forks said Tuesday proposed contract changes would affect employees’ family lives.  

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Workers at the Gateway Drive Simplot plant voted Monday night to go on strike, citing terms of a contract offer from the Boise, Idaho-based agribusiness company. While union officials said the contract affects health insurance and retirement benefits, Teamsters Local 120 Business Agent Bill Wedebrand emphasized the potential effects of longer shifts on employees’ families.

The proposed contract allows for 12-hour shifts — 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and vice versa — compared to the 8-hour shifts currently in place, Wedebrand said. But he said the proposed contract doesn’t guarantee days off.

“The company says ‘you’ll get them,’ but won’t put it in writing,” he said. Wedebrand said the current contract doesn’t guarantee days off, but includes language about getting extra pay for working a certain amount of consecutive days, “whereas this one doesn’t have that kind of language.”

It also doesn’t ensure that employees wouldn’t work more than 12 hours in one shift, Wedebrand said.

“We need to know what tomorrow brings when it comes to schedules,” he said. He added that the union prefers 8-hour workdays.

Wedebrand said workers are concerned about changing schedules affecting their ability to spend time with family and finding daycare providers.

“It’s about the families,” Wedebrand said. “It’s very important to us to have a family life outside of work.”

Production

Simplot spokesman David Cuoio wrote in an email to the Herald that production in Grand Forks has been “temporarily put on hold for the plant’s annual summer cleaning and maintenance, which had been previously scheduled for this time period.”

 “Production is scheduled to start up again in a couple of weeks,” he added. “If necessary, that work will resume by using Simplot management personnel from across the company’s North American food group operations.”

Cuoio said he was “not able to provide additional comments at this time” in response to follow-up questions regarding proposed contract changes. On Monday, he told the newspaper that changes Simplot proposed were “necessary.”

“All of the changes are in line with competitive best practices and creating a ‘best place to work’ environment in the local community,” he wrote on Monday. “Simplot has implemented similar changes at several of our other sites, and we’ve experienced positive outcomes such as reduced turnover and better work/life balance.”

Other issues

The proposed contract also included significant increases for out-of-pocket expenses for health insurance, Wedebrand said. He did not have specific figures available Tuesday.

He said the contract also changes the pension plan to a 401(k). Simplot has proposed contributing a certain dollar amount into a 401(k) plan, “which isn’t as secure as the defined pension program.”

“Which ends up being quite a bit less money,” he said.

Wedebrand said negotiations with Simplot have been going on for “a couple of months.” An offer was voted down in early July, and union members voted 108 to 37 against a final contract offer Mondayevening.

The Teamsters Local 120 represents about 190 Simplot employees in Grand Forks, Wedebrand said, which includes laborers, mechanics and refrigeration workers.

Wedebrand said Tuesday that he had not communicated with Simplot management since informing them of the Monday vote. He said there are no meetings currently scheduled.

The scene

Several Simplot employees declined to comment outside the plant Tuesday afternoon, and instead deferred to union representatives.

A Teamsters trailer was set up next to the plant on the north side of Gateway Drive, where Simplot makes potato products. A grill, packages of bottled water and bug spray sat nearby. About a dozen striking employees held signs on the lawn in front of the plant and waved to honking cars.

Pro Dog Security cars drove in front of the plant, and a Grand Forks police vehicle was parked in a nearby lot. Cpl. Troy Vanyo said the department is not stationing officers there during the strike, but he stopped by because the plant is in his assigned area of town. He said there have been “no problems” with the strike.

Simplot ranked No. 61 in Forbes’ list of America’s largest private companies. Forbes reported that the company had $6 billion in revenue as of December 2013 and 10,000 employees worldwide.

Annette Glomstad, whose husband is a Simplot employee, said she has a lot of friends who work at the plant.

“To me, it’s heartbreaking that it has to come to this,” she said.

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John Hageman
John Hageman covers local business and Grand Forks' legislative delegation. Get more business news at aroundtown.areavoices.com. 
(701) 780-1244
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