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Published September 02, 2013, 02:04 PM

Former American Crystal Sugar workers navigate changes since days at plant

Two years after the American Crystal Sugar Co. lockout and one year after they gave up on returning to work at the nearby Hillsboro plant, three former employees say they’re doing better than they could have imagined.

By: Ryan Bakken, Grand Forks Herald

MAYVILLE, N.D. – Two years after the American Crystal Sugar Co. lockout and one year after they gave up on returning to work at the nearby Hillsboro plant, three former employees say they’re doing better than they could have imagined.

The three men in their late 50s, who also are drawing their ACS retirement, say they have found new, less-stressful jobs.

“As it turned out, life is better this way,” Harlan Johnson of Mayville said.

In August 2011, about 1,300 workers were locked out of their jobs after the union rejected an American Crystal contract offer. In May, a little more than a month after the union ratified a new contract, about 400 union workers returned to their jobs.

American Crystal operates Minnesota processing plants in the communities of East Grand Forks, Crookston and Moorhead, and in the North Dakota communities of Hillsboro and Drayton.

Before the union vote in April that gave approval to a new contract, the company said about 650 union employees had resigned or retired.

Amid the conversation at a local eatery about how they’ve rebounded, however, three former employees struggled to hide the bitterness toward their former employer.

“After 30 years on the job, it’s hard to take a slap in the face,” said Billy Haines of Hillsboro.

Paul Hanson of Mayville said the bitterness has ebbed somewhat.

“It’s hard to get over it, but we’re working on it,” he said.

Still, for Johnson, Haines and Hanson, they’ve been able to find new forms of employment, and in some aspects, have come to appreciate the changes they’ve encountered, even if it’s been difficult at times.

Starting over

Johnson, Hanson and Haines are all in their late 50s and long-timers at ACS. They said finding new jobs took more time and effort than they anticipated. They believed that employers were looking for younger workers.

“It was very disheartening,” Johnson said. “I applied for a lot of jobs I was qualified for, but the positions were filled by younger guys.”

So, after 23 years at ACS as a wastewater operator, he produced his own work, starting a hobby farm and doing custom grass-seeding and sod work.

“I always wanted to do some hobby farming, but they forced me into it five years earlier than I had planned,” Johnson said.

“Once I made that change and accepted it, life got better.”

Haines, a crew leader and certified welder at ACS, works as a welder and mechanic and also helps with his family’s resort business. Hanson, a chemist/analyst at ACS, is working in the UND Medical School lab in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals.

“It’s very gratifying helping people solve cancer problems,” Hanson said. “What’s better than that?”

‘Better off now’

Haines and Johnson also suffered family hardship a few months into the lockout. Haines’ 23-year-old daughter, Ashley, died in an automobile accident. And Johnson’s wife, Marlene, was diagnosed with cancer. Johnson said his time was occupied by her successful treatment for about a year.

“When things went well for my wife, I decided it was time to move on,” he said.

“I’ve appreciated the better things in life more ever since.”

Haines said it is human nature to fear change.

“We were all forced into change,” he said. “But we’re all so much better off now. If you don’t change anything, you’re stuck in a rut.”

Not just a day off

Their employment journey over the last two years has made them more appreciative and respectful of Labor Day, they say. The national holiday, observed today, is now more than a day off.

“It’s a celebration for people who have jobs and appreciate what they have,” Haines said.

It makes Johnson nostalgic.

“We miss our former co-workers,” Johnson said. “You don’t work side-by-side with people for 20-30 years without creating a bond with them. It was basically a family that worked together and took pride in our work.”

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