Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Locked-Out Crystal Sugar Worker: 'We Didn't Do Anything to Deserve This'

August 27th, 2012 | Tula Connell

Credit: Joe Kekeris

Credit: Joe Kekeris

Michael Frank headed over to a rally in East Grand Forks, Minn., last night, one of many he’s taken part in over the past year. Frank, along with 1,300 other workers, was locked out of the American Crystal Sugar factory a year ago, and last night’s event was part of the workers’ ongoing efforts to urge the sugar beet processing company return to the bargaining table.

“They don’t want to sit down with us,” said Frank, a 33-year veteran with with company and currently day warehouse foreman. “We didn’t do anything to deserve this.”

The company locked out the workers Aug. 1, 2011, during bargaining talks over a successor contract between American Crystal Sugar and five local unions of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco and Grain Millers (BCTGM) at various locations in Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa.

BCTGM members overwhelmingly rejected the company’s final offer last year, which included significant increases to workers’ health care costs and major changes to job security, including the right to outsource work and seniority language. (Sign a petition calling on American Crystal Sugar CEO Dave Berg to treat workers fairly and return to the bargaining table.)

Before locking out the workers, the company was hugely profitable, with $1.5 billion in fiscal 2011 net earnings, up from $1.2 billion in 2010. In 2011, CEO Dave Berg took in nearly $2.5 million in total compensation.

American Crystal has replaced the workers, bringing in people from around the country and creating tension throughout the once close-knit community. In small farming towns like East Grand Forks, it’s easy to run into someone who just took your job.

As Frank describes it:

We’re basically another middle class getting beat up here in the valley. What used to be family isn’t any more.

It’s also hard to imagine newcomers performing such highly skilled work. Before he became a foreman, Frank’s job involved molasses desurgarization—a new process by which more sugar is extracted than ever before by running molasses through resin beads.

Although clearly frustrated by his many months off the job, Frank, 52, remains solid in his commitment to stick with his co-workers and demand Crystal Sugar give workers a fair shake. A widow who’s caring for his three children, ages 6, 9 and 12. Frank is an active member of his local union’s solidarity committee, a group that reaches out to the Red River Valley community to mobilize participation in events and to fundraise for the families affected by the lockout.

American Crystal Sugar is a big player on Capitol Hill, giving more than $1.5 million in campaign contributions to members of both parties since 2011, according to opensecrets.org. The company is a beneficiary of a government policy that restricts imports of sugar from overseas, writes Minnesota Public Radio News.

This week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka sent a letter to 177 members of Congress who have accepted campaign contributions from Crystal Sugar this year and urged them to send the company’s money back. In it, Trumka writes:

Rather than negotiate with BCTGM to provide a fair share of the earnings to the workers who were instrumental in generating them, this company and its management have embarked upon a path designed to break the union itself. David Berg, the current CEO, has likened the workers and their contract to a “cancerous tumor.” I am sure you do not approve of this blatant disregard for working families and their communities.

Many unions have contributed to the strike fund, and the workers have received support from throughout their communities. Rep. Keith
Ellison (D-Minn.) called on the company to return to the bargaining table and pointed out that the workers “stood shoulder to
shoulder with the company to fight for a better sugar program in the farm bill just because that’s how dedicated they are.” Yet,

What have they got in return? They’ve gotten locked out.

(Watch a video of Milwaukee Alderman Tony Zielinksi calling Crystal Sugar CEO Berg—and you can do the same: 218-236-4400.)

Members of the unions’ “road warriors” group travels throughout the country to get out their message and build support. In May, two-dozen locked-out workers traveled from Drayton, N.D., for a seven-day, 200-mile journey to Moorhead, Minn., headquarters of American Crystal Sugar. Earlier this year, workers from American Crystal joined locked out workers from Cooper Tire in a 1,000-mile Journey for Justice from
Fargo, N.D., to Findlay, Ohio. The journey highlighted the corporate greed behind the lockouts, and the growing drive by corporate CEOs to drive down wages and benefits to pad their own pockets.

Speaking at last night’s rally, Anthony, 15, son of a locked-out worker, said Crystal Sugar would learn that

When you pick a fight with one working family, you are picking a fight with all working families.

Contribute to the strike relief fund.
Sign a petition calling on American Crystal Sugar CEO Dave Berg to treat workers fairly and return to the bargaining table.
Get the latest updates on the Crystal Sugar lockout.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on August 24, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee they were represented by a hotel and restaurant local union (the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism (covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia) she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.

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One Response to “Locked-Out Crystal Sugar Worker: 'We Didn't Do Anything to Deserve This'”

  1. Charles Read Says:

    “fair share of the earnings to the workers who were instrumental in generating them”

    And when the company operates at a loss will they pay in their fair share.

    Unions have killed industries and business in this country. They are responsible for the apparel industry and the steel industry basically disappearing from the American landscape. The have ruined the automotive industry and the airline industry.

    In the middle of bankruptcy American Airline flight attendents ar bitching about making an average of $64.00 per hour.

    If you don’t like a proposed contract fine, play bet your job. If you loseit was you that made the bet. Go to Vegas and lose, see if they will give you your money back.

    All the union had to do was accept the contract.

    Beside there are lots of jobs in Texas, come on down.

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