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Union workers plan Nov. 1 vote on latest offer by Moorhead sugar company

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business Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Pioneer
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Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

MOORHEAD - Union members will hold a vote by Nov. 1 on the latest proposal from American Crystal Sugar Co., though the two sides' negotiators still do not see eye to eye.

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Union leaders with Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers said Tuesday that they'll seek a vote in spite of their assessment that the company's new plan is little different than earlier rejected versions.

Crystal representatives stated that rekindled talks on Monday and Tuesday had ended in disappointment.

John Riskey, union local president and business manager for BCTWGM workers at Crystal plants in East Grand Forks, Drayton and Moorhead, said he'll inform members "shortly" on when a vote will happen.

He said the company's proposal has a Nov. 1 deadline for a decision.

Crystal seems "committed to continuing a lockout that is tearing the community apart, putting hardship on 1,300 families and costing a farmer-owned cooperative an unsustainable amount of money," he said.

The company said in a statement that the union's offer "failed to adequately address the issues identified by both parties as being the keys to reaching an agreement ... It appears they have no sense of urgency in getting our employees back to work."

Some 1,300 Crystal workers have been locked out since Aug. 1 after their overwhelming rejection of a five-year contract proposal. They have been back at the table to talk twice at the request of federal mediators.

Job security

Crystal said its offer is a "substantial move" because it addresses two key issues.

First, the company said, it revised subcontracting issues to "guarantee that no employee or position will be eliminated due to subcontracting."

Brian Ingulsrud, Crystal's vice president of administration, told the Herald the company added an amendment that stated unequivocally that no union employees or jobs would be cut due to subcontracting of certain tasks at the plants.

"We made it as crystal clear as possible," he said, because the union's public statements had indicated job security was the main concern. The new language, he said, should put to rest "the rumor that the company wants to break the union."

Health care

Second, the company said it offered to "delay by a year" the implementation of "the transition to the management health care plan."

That plan requires employees to pay 17 percent of the health care premium cost, while the company pays 83 percent, Ingulsrud said.

Union workers say the increase in their health care burden would offset pay increases that accumulate to 17 percentage points over five years.

Ingulsrud said the company has paid for a national study showing that, on average, employees pay 59 percent of health care costs and companies pay 41 percent. As far as pay levels, he said the proposal is unchanged from earlier versions - 4 percent the first year, 3 percent the second year, and 2 percent for the last three years of the contract.

Riskey called Crystal's changes "minimal."

He said he couldn't predict whether union members will change their votes on the proposal. He hadn't talked to any of them since negotiations broke off, he said, and had spent much of his time Tuesday afternoon talking to news media.

Workers respond

Outside the west gate at the American Crystal plant in East Grand Forks, Richard Larson and Steve Sondrol manned the picket line, a 40-gallon barrel wood stove keeping them warm.

Told of management's new offer, Larson agreed that language about job security is his main concern. "That's what can hurt people in the future," said Larson, who has worked for Crystal for 36.5 years. "They also want to get rid of seniority."

On the cost of health insurance, "I think we are willing to change some on that," Larson said.

He said he expects to hear Tuesday night whether there will be a union vote on the company's new amendments.

Sondrol, who has worked at the plant 35 years, said "I'd have to read it," before he would decide on the new offer.

And while some union members may be leaning more toward getting something signed after being out of work this long, "75 percent" of the union still wants to hold out for a good deal, Larson said.

"We don't want to be picketing this long - 78 days now - and not get something out of it," he said.

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Pioneer staff reports
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