MOORHEAD, Minn. (AP) — With the lockout of about 1,300 American Crystal Sugar Co. workers entering its second month and no negotiations in sight, the company is ready to start the harvest season with inexperienced replacement workers.

Company officials say it will be business as usual when processing begins this week at plants in Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa. Union officials question whether it can be done safely, effectively — and productively.

“I think the big question as time runs on is, can American Crystal run the factories with these transient workers,” union representative Mark Froemke said. “They could destroy the equipment, they could get hurt in the factory and they could lose the farmers millions and millions of dollars.”

American Crystal vice president Brian Ingulsrud, the company spokesman during the lockout, said the replacement workers have spent much of their time training in the last month, with an emphasis on safety.

“We feel confident we are going to be able to run the factories with the replacement workers,” Ingulsrud said.

The lockout is the first labor impasse in 30 years at American Crystal, a cooperative that accounts for 38 percent of the nation’s sugar from beets and 15 percent of overall sugar production. But analysts say they don’t expect any immediate effect on sugar prices.

American Crystal’s last offer was a 17 percent pay increase over five years, but workers rejected it over job security provisions, health care costs and language in the contract they say will hurt workers in future years.

The two sides have met once since the workers were locked out, led by federal mediator Jeanne Frank. No further talks are scheduled, Froemke and Ingulsrud said. Frank did not return a phone message to The Associated Press.

The company has plants in East Grand Forks, Moorhead, Crookston and Chaska, Minn., and in Hillsboro and Drayton, N.D. and Mason City, Iowa. A Minnetonka firm was contracted to bring in replacement workers, but the company has released few details about the new workforce.

Although North Dakota is clamoring to find workers to fill jobs during an oil boom in the western part of the state, one labor expert said that didn’t necessarily mean leverage for American Crystal workers.

“Everybody in North Dakota is a potential replacement (at American Crystal) as far as that goes,” said Michael Ziesch, a Job Service North Dakota research analyst. “There’s nothing to say that somebody can’t move from an existing job into one of those positions.”

He added: “It’s not like they’re trying to find 1,000 neuroscientists. It’s not that I’m trying to downplay the positions, but it’s not super specific.”

Larry Smith, a sugar beet specialist at a University of Minnesota-Crookston research center, said he doesn’t believe the lockout will affect Crystal’s ability to process beets.

“I’ve got friends on both sides of this deal. You would like to see it settled,” Smith said. “But I have full confidence they’re going to get them processed, one way or the other.”

American Crystal said it will start its pre-pile harvest on Tuesday, which is two days before the factories will begin processing beets. Growers provide the minimum amount of beets to keep the plants running before the harvest shifts into full gear around Oct. 1.

“It takes the same number of employees to run the factories on Sept. 8 as it does on Oct. 1,” Ingulsrud said. “We’re pretty much set to go.”

Most politicians in sugar country have said little about the lockout. North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson and North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple didn’t respond to interview requests by the AP during the past week. North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven declined to be interviewed, but spokesman Don Canton issued a statement that the sugar industry is important to the area and “we hope they resolve their differences and encourage both management and the union to continue their negotiations.”

Experts say a continued lockout should not affect sugar prices in the short term. Farmers don’t get typical subsidies like producers of most crops, but the government manages the supply of sugar through trade restrictions and tariffs, said Patrick Westhoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri.

That helps keep sugar prices higher than they otherwise would be, Westhoff said.

The quality of the crop is more important to the market than a labor dispute, Smith said.

“In most places that I’ve seen — Michigan, Montana, Wyoming and of course Minnesota and North Dakota — we’re going to be down in tonnage this year,” Smith said. “But they’re an amazing crop. I think it’s going to be better than what we’re thinking about.”

Comments (24)
  1. Farfignuttin says:

    Inexperienced harvest workers….doesn’t sound too risky. For god sakes, unions are ruining america!

    1. MIke says:

      Unions help the rest of us hourly workers set wage and benefit standards while offering a company highly trained and dedicated professional staff. It must have worked for American Crystal for the last 30 years considering this is the first lockout to affect the union and company.
      I am not sure how unions are ruining America, but I do know that wages have been stagnant for the last 30 years and that has a far more devastating and lasting affect to economy which is driven by consumers.

    2. dan says:

      What about illegal immigrants? Can’t we just bring them in? They won’t pay taxes and be on the government for health care.

    3. Mike says:

      No doubt unions are ruining America!! Get rid of them all. The American people have had it!!

  2. iWorkfor$$$ says:

    Or, the most likely scenario, they will save the farmers millions and millions of dollars.

    1. Mike says:

      The farmers will not save a nickle. The extra profit will be passed up to the CEO and upper management who have now reached salary’s, 500 times the level of average workers. If your not a CEO, upper management or stock holder your cheer leading against your own self interest.

  3. Follow the leader thugs says:

    Unions act as if the company won’t run without them. In another economy it’s true, in today’s economy they have nothing to stand on or for. Good luck on the picket line as you watch people who are more qualified take your job.

    1. Mike says:

      More qualified? Union workers have thirty years experience working with management and production with this company. Your delusional if you believe in a month these scabs workers will have the same output. That is a fact.

      1. Union Thug says:

        Exactly. Why don’t you so-called “experts” on labor relations take your anger out on Wall Street rather than on hard working union folk?

        1. What Next? says:

          Those out of work may actually appreciate the opportunity to work! Just a thought!

          1. Duh! says:

            AGREED! The company’s union workers make about $40,000 on average, according to the union, but the company says they average $50,000 with overtime. The company’s offer would put union workers under its corporate health plan, not a separate union plan, so union workers, who currently pay no premiums, would pay more than $850 a year for family coverage. WHAT ARE THEY CRYING ABOUT? Get to work or give the work to someone who wants it–DONE!

  4. hac says:

    “Union officials question whether it can be done safely, effectively — and productively.”

    How did we ever survive without unions?

  5. Staci Brakke says:

    David Berg who is the CEO and President of ACS had an estimated compensation of $1,600,012 in 2009. If he is making 500 times the average worker, that would mean that the average worker makes $3,200 per year. That is a fact.

  6. tom says:

    fire the union workers and hire the replacements for a good wage and benefits and you will get more productivity then you would from union workers. union workers are just fat a lazy and looking for the easy way out.

    1. Union Thug says:

      I have a better idea…. fire the anti-union bloggers and outsource their self-appointed “jobs” to India!

  7. factdealer says:

    So the union ruins another few thousand lives, everyday i thank god that we voted no 9 years ago to union, or i’d have been replaced, instead im happy making my $50k, easy life, no college.

  8. Sue J says:

    At the State Fair this year the AFL CIO had their stand and kept telling people that we should tax the rich. I asked them what is wrong with working hard to make money for my family? No good answer but he told me the Union will bring this country to its knees . Sounds like Socialism to me!

    1. jimbo says:

      Good Comment…
      Democrats just don’t get it:
      “Tax the rich, feed the poor, till their are no rich no more” (10 years after).
      I gave up on the DFL years ago with their “entitlement” and spend programs.
      I have a budget which I have to abide by, why don’t they.

  9. Lisa says:

    Thumbs up to American Crystal!

  10. GN says:

    The beginning will be a bit shakey but over time the factory will run more efficient with less cost and better profitablility for possible future expansion and improvements. Hats off to the folks that got the job. Stick with it, work hard and enjoy. And of course if there is an injury the union and the media will blow it totally out of proportion as usual.

  11. NonU says:

    Anyone remember the Hormel stike?
    Same thing. Only difference is American Crystal didn’t give them a chance to go in an fk up equipment before they went on strike.
    With the un-employment rate at what it is, it is foolish to think there aren’t any qualified workers out there looking for work.

    1. Mike says:

      How right you are!!

  12. eugoogley says:

    wait wait wait, you mean to tell me I dont have to PAY, MY money, for MY healthcare, or for MY retirement?!! i can make 50k as a PRODUCTION worker, with nothing more than a highschool diploma(right..GED)?! well sign me up! my wife too! 100k combined income, no pesky college debt, a 60″ screen for my NASCAR, and a new ford in my driveway!

  13. aebsteinke says:

    There was so much room for negotiation here, I wonder what the real issue was, where the anger was. i can’t imagine anyone walking out on a job that pays well, regular hours and benefits. Who led this group astray?
    Jeanne, you only met once? Wow, were you also let go for inept performance? In context of this article, this is how it appears.

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