AFL-CIO Plans American Crystal Sugar Boycott

AFL-CIO Plans American Crystal Sugar Boycott

The national organization, which represents 56 unions, said it endorses a boycott of American Crystal Sugar products; meanwhile, an American Crystal Sugar representative said the company is currently focused on its replacement workers.

The AFL-CIO on Tuesday announced plans for a nationwide boycott of products produced by Moorhead-based American Crystal Sugar Company—which locked out 1,300 union workers in August 2011 after they rejected a new labor contract offer.

The AFL-CIO, a national organization that encompasses 56 unions representing more than 12 million workers, said that the boycott will begin October 15, but it would be called off if American Crystal Sugar’s leadership team “returns to the bargaining table in good faith and concludes a contract.”

American Crystal Sugar Vice President Brian Ingulsrud told Twin Cities Business on Tuesday that the company is “mainly focused” on the replacement employees who are “doing a terrific job” of processing this year’s crop of sugar beets. He declined to comment on the proposed product boycott and said that no negotiations with the locked-out workers are scheduled.

News of the planned boycott comes several months after Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, pledged support on behalf of his national organization for the locked-out workers. The AFL-CIO said at the time that it and the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International Union—which represents the locked-out workers—were “escalating their campaign for fairness and justice at the company.”

Trumka said in a Tuesday statement that AFL-CIO members “are proud to stand with the courageous locked-out workers who are responsible for American Crystal Sugar’s profitability and previously strong reputation.” He drew a comparison to the recent National Football League’s referee lockout, saying that “locking out skilled workers who do important, unglamorous work hurts not only the workers, but the bottom line.”

The boycott is not the first step taken by the AFL-CIO in support of the local union. In August, Trumka wrote a letter to members of Congress who received the company’s campaign contributions, urging them to intervene and help end the lockout, according to a report by Minnesota Public Radio.

American Crystal Sugar is a farmer-owned co-op and the largest U.S. beet sugar producer. The union representing the locked-out workers has cited language regarding job security and health care benefits as key sticking points in the ongoing labor dispute.

Company officials and union representatives convened in late August to discuss a “return-to-work” agreement—one that would outline how workers would transition back into the company’s work force in the event that a labor contract is ratified. But the two sides were unable to reach a deal.

According to a statement that American Crystal Sugar posted online, company and union negotiators also met with a federal mediator on September 5, but no agreement was reached.

Some of the company’s North Dakota workers in mid-September reportedly appealed to North Dakota’s Supreme Court after being denied unemployment benefits. Lawyers for the company argue that state law prohibits unemployment payments for a lockout or strike, while the locked-out workers’ attorneys contend that the law pertains specifically to situations when employees deliberately withhold labor—and therefore does not apply to locked-out American Crystal Sugar employees who want to work.

Earlier this year, Twin Cities Business Editor in Chief Dale Kurschner traveled to the Red River Valley to learn more about the ongoing and contentious labor dispute. To read the resulting feature story, which was published in the February issue of the magazine, click here.