Six months after lockout, workers stage ‘back to work’ action at American Crystal Sugar

EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. – Union members reported for work Feb. 1 at American Crystal Sugar’s East Grand Forks, Minn., factory. Rather than going inside to their jobs, however, they remained outside the plant gates, where they were locked out six months ago to the day – and instead hollered at scabs going inside the plant.

The East Grand Forks action was one of four similar demonstrations at American Crystal Sugar factory gates on Feb. 1-2 in Hillsboro and Drayton, N.D., and East Grand Forks and Moorhead, Minn.

The company locked out 1,300 workers on Aug. 1, 2011 when they voted down its contract proposal by a 90-10 percent margin .

The workers (members of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco and Grain Millers) spent the days leading up to Feb. 1 in organizing “back to work” actions outside factory gates.

“We’re just here today to show the company and the farmers and the community that we’re ready to go back to work,” said Scott Ripplinger, a 28-year company worker and an ion technician. He co-chairs the solidarity committee at East Grand Forks BCTGM Local 167G, Unit 264.

In East Grand Forks, about 30 union workers stood with signs outside the plant gates as scab workers drove cars inside. “Go back scabs, go back!” they shouted.

The union’s action came two days after the latest federal mediation session between the company and BCTGM ended with American Crystal Sugar continuing to insist on its July 28, 2011 contract offer-which union members voted down 90-10 percent.

“It’s hard to negotiate when only one side is negotiating,” said Ken Lamberson, a boiler house foreman, 16-year company veteran, and assistant head steward and co-chair of the solidarity committee.

“We truly believe it’s not about money; they’re out to break the union,” added Sonny Collison, vice president of the East Grand Forks BCTGM local. “It’s hard to accept it,” he said. “You thought you were part of the factory.”

Almost every car and truck driving by on U.S. 2 past the factory honked in support of the workers. “We’ve got a lot of community support,” said Collison.

The East Grand Forks workers also expressed a profound sense of betrayal by American Crystal Sugar.

“I work there. My dad works there. My brother works there. My sister works there,” said Lamberson. “There are a lot of husband-wife couples who work there. A lot of dads and sons,” he added.

Six months before the lock-out, Lamberson said, the company asked him and his family members who work at American Crystal Sugar to appear in a company video, ‘The Chosen Field.’ “The company came to us and asked us to do this video and talk about family, tradition, and moving up the ranks,” he said.

And six months later they all were locked out.

Bonnie and Jay Holter are one of the married couples who work at American Crystal Sugar’s East Grand Forks factory. The Arvilla, N.D., residents even met at work. Bonnie, an ion helper, has worked 28 years at the plant. Jay, an ion technician, has worked 29 years at the plant. They raised their family of six now-grown children on union wages from American Crystal Sugar.

“We’ve given the best we’ve got to this company and this is how we are treated,” Jay Holter said. “It’s probably only a year and a half ago the company gave us shirts that said, ‘You’re the best at what you do.'”

The workers outside the plant lined up and marched as far as possible toward the security guards at the factory gates. They chanted: “What do we want? A fair contract! When do we want it? Now!” Another chant: “What does Crystal Sugar have to hide? Dirty sugar made inside.”

Still another chant: “Come on Crystal, play it straight. Sit down and negotiate.” Another chant: “David Berg, rich and rude. We don’t like your attitude.” Berg is the Crystal Sugar CEO who a few weeks ago compared the union to a “cancerous tumor.”

“This is just beyond believable,” said Jan Bailey of Grand Forks, an ion tech who has worked 12 years at the company. “I can’t understand why Crystal is doing what they’re doing. They’re saying one thing and doing another. Their actions are speaking for themselves. “I’m grateful my husband doesn’t work here,” she said.

Bailey added, “Even though my husband is employed, it’s not enough. We’ve almost lost our house.”

Bailey said she and her husband, long-time renters, purchased their first home in 2004. “We had a chance to buy a house,” she said. “Nobody saw this coming. Why would you?” Now, she fears, their house will be going into foreclosure.

The couple is also no longer able to help out their children and grandchildren financially. “We’re just barely taking care of ourselves,” she said.

Despite the grim challenges locked-out workers face, they retain a sense of humor. As the rally wound down and workers began to move away from the plant gates, one man quipped: “On behalf of the band and myself, I hope we passed the audition.” It was a quote from John Lennon and a Beatles’ recording.

Back at the BCTGM office in Grand Forks, Debra Kostrzewski worked to coordinate another round of food drives to support locked-out workers. She has worked 23 years at the company and is a quality lab foreman at the East Grand Forks plant.

“Right now, we’re trying to get by,” she said. “I personally feel betrayed because I enjoy my job there and I want to go back even after all this, once this lockout is over and the union is back in-and we will be back in.”

“People are fighting. They’re going to stay strong. They’re going to continue the fight,” said Local 167G President John Riskey, a Minot, N.D. resident who began working at American Crystal Sugar in 1979.

American Crystal reported record profits in the year before the contract was up for renewal, workers noted. “We should have gotten a bonus instead of a lock-out,” said Lynn Frederickson, a Drayton crane operator with 40 years at the company.

Instead, workers said the company offer includes 40 pages of concessions.

“It’s about power. It’s about them having the power for all decisions,” union Vice President Brad Nelson, a Drayton plant worker, said. “They don’t want a union contract in their way.”

American Crystal Sugar planned for a lockout, workers said, even before they voted on the contract. Two weeks before August 1, workers said, the company told them to take their personal tools home.

“It hit home after 40 years of seeing your husband going to work and seeing the toolbox come home,” said Mavis Keena of the Drayton plant. “To have somebody go and turn their back on you is very emotional.”

“Right now, it looks like it’s going to be a lot longer fight than we were hoping,” Riskey said. “We need as unions to fight together to put a stop to this-stand strong.”

Steve Share is editor of Minneapolis Labor Review. This story was distributed by Press Associates Inc.

Photo: John Stennes/AP



Steve Share
Steve Share

Steve Share is Editor at Minneapolis Labor Review. Share is a member of the Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild (CWA Local 37002). In addition to editing the Labor Review, Share serves as communications director for the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation.