Weather Forecast


American Crystal Sugar Co.: Back to negotiations

As a steady stream of beet trucks passed the American Crystal Sugar Co. plant in East Grand Forks, workers on picket duty expressed cautious optimism that their union and company management can find some common ground when mediated negotiations resume today -- the 85th day of the lockout."I hope they both sit down and negotiate this time," said Jay Sorum, a 22-year veteran of the plant last week. "That means both sides actually working it out. It can't just be throwing one thing out and then fold your arms. They have to negotiate."

Sorum, who was holding a sign that read, "It's time to negotiate," said he thinks if both sides come to the table willing to negotiate, they can come to an agreement.

"I hope both sides settle sometime soon," said Dave Gilleland, who has been picketing four times a week, four hours at a stretch. "This is really getting old. When it gets cold out here, it won't be good."

Gilleland said the approximately 1,300 locked-out workers in union-represented positions at the company's five Red River Valley plants and two other sites in Minnesota and Iowa are anxious to return to work. However, he said, "we don't want to sign anything that makes us go backwards."

Talks between management and the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union in late August failed to yield any progress. Both sides have said recently that they hope for a resolution to the costly and divisive impasse.

The company locked employees out Aug. 1 when the contract covering union-represented workers expired. Union members rejected the company's final contract offer two days before the lockout. The locked-out workers have been replaced by contracted temporary replacement workers. American Crystal has also brought in extra contracted security personnel as union members continue to picket outside the plants.

John Riskey, president and business manager of the union's 167G local that represents workers at the East Grand Forks, Drayton, N.D., and Moorhead plants, said recently he hopes to hold "serious negotiations." He said the union planned to present proposals offering "significant" movement from previous union positions.

Brian Ingulsrud, company vice president for administration, said American Crystal would negotiate in good faith. He indicated he expects the union to make significant movement from its previous positions.

"I want to go back to work," said Sorum. "I think the company and the growers need us back at work."

Given the financial strain of the lockout, some workers have taken other jobs or are looking for other work.

Workers on the picket line said most locked out workers have remained united in their desire to see the lockout through.

"We're just kind of waiting," said Jon Radakovich on the picket line. "There's a lot of uncertainty that you deal with. But for me and the people I see out on the picket line and talk with, there is solidarity. We haven't wavered."

Nearly all of American Crystal Sugar Co.'s 37 receiving stations have closed, and have stockpiled their last sugar beets, signaling the end of harvest in that area.

The factory yards in East Grand Forks, Crookston and Drayton, N.D., remain open, as well as a handful of outlying piling stations, according to the company's website Sunday afternoon.

The Moorhead factory yard, near the corporate headquarters, closed Friday.

Only a few acres of beets among the 440,000 acres scheduled to be harvested, remain to be topped and lifted.

Herald reporter Stephen J. Lee contributed to this report. The Grand Forks Herald and the Bemidji Pioneer are both owned by Forum Communications Co.