Sugar CEO calls union workers a “cancer”

SOUTH FARGO, N.D. – As American Crystal Sugar’s lockout of its 1,300 Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco, and Grain Miller (BCTGM) workers passed the 4-month mark, workers challenged the lockout at the firm’s annual meeting – just after its CEO embittered them by comparing them to cancer.

“Four months ago today, workers arrived at Crystal Sugar factories up and down the Red River Valley to find the doors locked. Crystal Sugar management hired replacement workers and security guards to protect the factories from their own workers,” said John Riskey, president of BCTGM Local 167G, as workers massed in front of the Holiday Inn in South Fargo, N.D., where American Crystal’s meeting occurred on Dec. 1.

“We’re here today to ask why? Was it to reduce productivity? Was it to starve your neighbors? Was it to hit local businesses in a down economy? Was it to divide our communities? Because that’s what’s happening.”

Union members questioned the company’s contention that it cannot afford the union contract, pointing out that the last three years have been profitable for Crystal Sugar and directors have rewarded top executives handsomely. The company reported net revenues grew by over 28 percent from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2011 to $1.54 billion. President and CEO Dave Berg’s total annual compensation package grew to $2.44 million in 2011.

“We worked hard to produce a quality product until they locked us out four months ago, and it shows in the company’s recent results,” said Kari Sorenson who worked at the Moorhead factory. “I am angry that the board has rewarded Berg with a $2.4 million compensation package this year. And yet management are committed to taking away from the workers who’ve helped make this company such a success, no matter the cost to our communities.”

Before the lockout, union members cite years of cooperative relations between the union and the company. They also said the lockout threatens both sides.

“For decades we’ve worked together with growers and management to produce a quality product and to defend our way of life here in the Red River Valley. At a time when several legislative efforts to kill the sugar program are afoot, we should be working together to support our industry,” said Riskey.

The situation wasn’t helped by Berg’s comparison of the workers to cancer, three weeks before, or his discussion of ways to rid the firm of its union workers.

In a meeting of Crystal Sugar shareholders on Nov. 7 in Grafton, N.D., 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 diagnosed with cancer, who 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.”

Workers responded with disappointment and outrage.

Sarah Gust, a 40-year worker, said, “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 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 management have for us workers.”

Berg went on to say 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 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.”

Berg repeated his cancer analogy, saying “At some point that tumors got to come out. That’s what we’re doing.”

News of Berg’s offensive remarks came the week after the company began placing help wanted ads locally and as far away as Bismarck, N.D. After locking out workers four months ago, the company hired replacements through Minnetonka, Minn.-based Strom Engineering. Crystal Sugar says it is moving to the next phase of its “contingency plan” by offering wages significantly below those of locked-out workers.

Support for the locked-out workers is widespread, and one indication of it came at a Nov. 30 fundraiser in the Twin Cities to support them. The event, at the UFCW Local 1189 hall, netted more than $22,000 in donations for the locked-out workers.

Ken Lamberson, a 16-year Crystal Sugar employee, said the contributions would help all the workers, but particularly those in North Dakota who are not receiving unemployment compensation, unlike workers in Iowa and Minnesota. “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.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.