Crystal Sugar Petitions ND Supreme Court’s Benefits Ruling

Crystal Sugar Petitions ND Supreme Court’s Benefits Ruling

The company is asking the Supreme Court to review its recent ruling regarding locked-out workers; meanwhile, a proposed amendment seeks to ensure that locked-out North Dakota workers are not eligible for unemployment benefits in the future.

Less than a month after North Dakota’s Supreme Court overturned a state decision in order to allow locked-out American Crystal Sugar workers to receive unemployment benefits, the Moorhead-based company is asking the court to review its decision.

Meanwhile, a proposed amendment to a state bill that is currently being considered would ensure that locked-out North Dakota workers do not receive such benefits in the future.

American Crystal Sugar locked out 1,300 union workers in August 2011 after the employees rejected a new labor contract offer. Locked-out workers in Minnesota were deemed eligible for unemployment benefits, while the company’s 400 North Dakota workers were declared ineligible under a state law, which precludes unemployment compensation if “the individual’s unemployment is due to a strike, sympathy strike, or a claimant’s work stoppage dispute of any kind which exists because of a labor dispute . . .”

A district court judge subsequently affirmed the state’s decision to deny benefits to the locked-out North Dakota workers.

North Dakota’s Supreme Court, however, overturned that ruling last month, stating that the law pertains only to employee-initiated work stoppages, like strikes—meaning that the locked-out workers do qualify for benefits.

But American Crystal Sugar, whose officials have reportedly said in the past that the company was not directly involved in the case, now appears to be fighting the decision: An attorney for the company earlier this week submitted a petition for rehearing to the North Dakota Supreme Court.

Calls to an American Crystal Sugar official, as well as the company’s attorney, were not immediately returned.

Petitions for rehearing are rarely granted and should be filed only in instances when a party believes the court has made a “glaring error,” according to the North Dakota Supreme Court’s website.

Daniel Phillips, an attorney for the locked out workers, told Twin Cities Business that he believes “the initial ruling was the correct ruling, and I’m disappointed that American Crystal Sugar would come back now and tell the Supreme Court to change its mind after it took them months to come up with a well-reasoned decision.”

Meanwhile, North Dakota lawmakers are considering whether to alter the law’s language to ensure that locked-out employees are not eligible for unemployment in future situations. Such an amendment was added Monday to a state bill, according to a report by the Grand Forks Herald.

Senator Jerry Klein—a Republican from Fargo and chairman of the Senate Industry, Business, and Labor Committee—said the amendment “is providing clarity to get back to where we thought the law was,” the newspaper reported. He is among those who contend that the current law regarding benefits does not intend to make locked-out employees eligible for unemployment.

That amendment, however, would not affect the locked out American Crystal Sugar workers. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, the state’s Job Service agency began evaluating the locked-out workers’ claims in order to begin distributing benefit payments, Phillips said. Those who would have been eligible for benefits following the lockout but have since found other employment are expected to receive retroactive payments for the period in which they were eligible, he added.

American Crystal Sugar is a farmer-owned co-op and the largest U.S. beet sugar producer. The locked-out workers have rejected management’s labor contract four times, most recently in December.

Last year, Twin Cities Business Editor in Chief Dale Kurschner traveled to the Red River Valley to investigate the ongoing and contentious labor dispute. To read the resulting feature story and to learn more about the lockout, click here.

In other news, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering buying 400,000 tons of sugar to stave off a wave of defaults by sugar processors that borrowed $862 million under a government program. The move is meant to prop up sliding U.S. sugar prices—and it could benefit companies like American Crystal Sugar, the newspaper reported.