After a long, drawn-out lockout—now entering its 17th month—everyone expected a close vote on Dec. 1.
“What this shows is that people are really pissed off at the company,” Terry Holm, a retired sugar worker from the Hillsboro plant in North Dakota, told the Militant. “We have a degree of pride out here in the country, which they can’t take away from us. We have dignity too,” he added.
American Crystal Sugar Co. has refused to make any significant changes to its contract demands. These include outsourcing union work with nonunion contract workers, gutting the grievance procedure, eroding seniority rights, increasing health care costs at whim and eliminating health coverage at retirement for new hires.
The latest contract offer was essentially the same as the bosses’ three earlier proposals, which were rejected by margins of 96, 90 and then this past June 63 percent.
John Riskey, president of BCTGM Local 167G, said the vote reflected the union’s strength and called for “real give-and-take negotiations.”
“Everyone hates this company,” said Clayton Bronson, a retired sugar worker from Drayton, when asked why he thought the contract was turned down. “I can’t explain it any other way. Many were motivated by hatred.”
Scott Ripplinger, a locked-out worker from the East Grand Forks plant in Minnesota, said, “The rejection of the contract for a fourth time shows we are not willing to give up what our forefathers fought and even died for. We must escalate this fight to a new level. The owners and management must realize they will not be able to beat us. We will fight until we get a fair contract.”
The vote was not an easy decision for many workers.
Randy Anderson, a locked-out worker from Drayton, told the Militant he changed how he was going to vote “at least five times.”
“I had planned to vote for the contract this time, as I had in the previous vote in June,” he said. “But when it came time to mark the vote my gut told me to vote no.
“I think there is still a basis to fight for a better contract,” said Anderson. “Even if the contract passed, there would be nothing to be ashamed of. It’s the same contract, but we aren’t the same. We put up a fight and it changed us. We made waves. We made the company hurt.”
In a statement on its website, American Crystal Sugar responded to the vote, saying it offered a “solid and generous package,” similar to what it offers the scabs who replaced union workers. These workers, according to the company, are “creating a productive and successful new workforce for our company.”
Each side presents a different picture of how the company is doing.
“Last year was still a very good year for us,” company spokesman Brian Ingulsrud told the Grand Forks Herald Dec. 1.
After reviewing recent financial reports of the company, the union said “net proceeds fell more than 30 percent in fiscal 2012 to $555 million, compared to $811 million for the fiscal year that ended August 31, 2011.”
The amount growers receive per ton of beets fell more than $14 to $58.67. This stands in contrast to beet farmers at Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative, who are projected to receive an average $74.05 per ton this year. Farmers from Western Sugar—based in Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana—expect $82.70 per ton and Michigan Sugar expects $87.74 per ton.
“This should be embarrassing to them,” said Holm. “Keep in mind that the Red River Valley is the most profitable sugar beet farmland in the U.S. They always made the most profits here.”
More than 500 of the 1,300 locked-out workers have either retired or moved to new jobs. This number may now grow, but the desire of union members to continue the fight is still there.
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