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Published July 30, 2011, 07:35 PM

American Crystal Union Employees Overwhelmingly Reject Contract Offer

Some 1,300 union workers at American Crystal Sugar Co. will be without jobs on Monday, after members overwhelmingly rejected the company’s final offer for a new five-year contract.

By: Kristin Daum, Forum Communications

No more talks. No more negotiating. The lockout is on.

Some 1,300 union workers at American Crystal Sugar Co. will be without jobs on Monday, after members overwhelmingly rejected the company’s final offer for a new five-year contract.

More than 1,200 – or about 97 percent – of the union members voted Saturday on whether to approve Crystal’s final contract proposal, union representative Mark Froemke said.

Of those, 96 percent of members rejected the contract, Froemke said.

The current contract expires Monday, and American Crystal Sugar executives will not let union members work without a signed contract in place.

Brian Ingulsrud, Crystal’s vice president for administration and company negotiator for the talks, said he was “very surprised by the result and disappointed.”

Ingulsrud said late Saturday there were no plans to negotiate any further.

“That was the final offer,” he said, referring to the most recent proposal presented Thursday to the union workers.

“What we’ve told the union and what we’re planning to follow through on is that there’ll be no work for the union employees come Monday morning,” Ingulsrud said.

With the lockout on, the company has prepared to bring in non-union workers to run the company’s factories, Ingulsrud said.

American Crystal Sugar operates five factories in the Red River Valley region, including one in Moorhead. The company also has facilities in Chaska, Minn., and Mason City, Iowa.

“I felt like we presented an excellent offer that could have easily prevented the work stoppage that is about to begin,” Ingulsrud said.

However, union representatives said members felt the offer didn’t address key issues of concern, including health care benefits and language in the proposal that dealt with their job protection.

“All we’ve asked for is a contract that doesn’t put our jobs in jeopardy and benefits the company, farmers, workers, and the entire community,” Local 167G union president John Riskey said in a statement. “The company’s offer still has major loopholes allowing non-union contractors to replace union workers and makes health insurance unaffordable.”

Under the contract offer, union members would have seen an 8 percent pay increase this year, including a $2,000 signing bonus. Then an extra 9 percent pay raise would have been spread across the remaining years of the contract.

“It never has and never was about the money,” Froemke said. “When the company has stated that their offer is lucrative, the truth of the matter is, is in the back end they hurt us badly.”

Froemke said after the votes were tallied that the negotiations were now “totally in the hands” of Crystal Sugar – but the union was prepared to meet as early as this morning if company officials wanted.

Riskey asked Crystal executives to arrange the meeting “to continue negotiating and to let us keep working.”

“A lockout will be devastating not only to the 1300 affected families, but to the entire Red River Valley community,” Riskey said.

With the sugar beet harvest only weeks away, Ingulsrud said American Crystal can’t risk a potential strike by allowing the union members to continue working without a contract at “a very critical time.”

“We’re sorry that our employees won’t be on the job come Monday morning,” he said.

Leaders of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union decided against making any recommendation as to how workers should have voted Saturday – leaving the decision solely in the hands of the affected union members.