Crystal Sugar, Union at Odds on Return-to-Work Agreement

Crystal Sugar, Union at Odds on Return-to-Work Agreement

Company officials and union representatives convened Monday to discuss a “return-to-work” agreement; the company said it is “not optimistic of reaching a resolution” due to the differences between its proposal and the union’s counter proposal.

American Crystal Sugar Company and the union representing its locked-out employees met Monday to discuss a “return-to-work” agreement, but no deal was reached.

Moorhead-based American Crystal Sugar—a farmer-owned co-op and the largest U.S. beet sugar producer—locked out 1,300 union workers last August after they rejected a new labor contract offer. The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers & Grain Millers Local 167G (BCTGM) union, which represents the workers, has cited language regarding job security and health care benefits as key sticking points.

At the union’s request, a federal mediator called the parties together on Monday 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.

Upon reviewing American Crystal Sugar’s proposed return-to-work agreement, the union provided a proposal of its own, and it “is sitting on the table,” Union spokesman John Riskey said in a Wednesday phone interview. He declined to provide a copy of the union’s proposal or discuss its terms “while we’re still at the table on it.”

American Crystal Sugar’s proposed return-to-work agreement stipulates that the union cannot file charges with the National Labor Relations Board or any other local, state, or federal agency regarding conduct that occurred during the lockout. And the company said that if the union doesn’t accept its agreement by September 1, it reserves the right to modify the terms of the deal.

American Crystal Sugar’s proposal also states that the company will hold mandatory meetings and designate which union workers must attend. A locked-out employee who fails to report to those meetings “will be considered to have voluntarily resigned his/her position effective on that date.” In addition, employees involved in the bargaining discussion will be placed in the last permanent job they held at the company prior to the lockout and be paid at a rate determined by the labor agreement, according to the company's proposal.

To view the company’s complete return-to-work proposal, click here.

American Crystal Sugar representatives were not available for comment Thursday morning, but the company said in a statement that the union’s counter proposal is “significantly different” than the return-to-work agreement that it pitched.

“No agreement was reached,” and American Crystal Sugar advised the union that “it was not optimistic of reaching a resolution on a return-to-work agreement given the wide disagreement between the two proposals,” the company said.

According to Riskey, a federal mediator is working to set up additional negotiations, but no future meetings have been scheduled. Once a return-to-work policy is agreed upon, the union will attempt to progress with labor contract negotiations, he said.

Following Monday’s meeting, American Crystal Sugar said in a statement that “the process seemed to be backwards,” as return-to-work agreements are typically negotiated after a labor contract has been ratified.

Riskey contested that assertion. He told Twin Cities Business that return-to-work policies are often negotiated prior to labor contracts.

American Crystal Sugar’s workers, who have now been locked out for a year, have rejected the company’s labor contract offers three times, most recently in June. The company has described its most recent labor contract proposal as its “final offer.”

Locked-out workers in Minnesota received unemployment benefits, although the assistance for some has been cut off. Some workers have filed appeals in an attempt to have those benefits reinstated, Riskey said.

American Crystal Sugar’s North Dakota workers, meanwhile, were declared ineligible for unemployment benefits under state law. The union will go before the North Dakota Supreme Court on September 18 in an attempt to make locked-out workers in the state eligible for benefits, according to Riskey.

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.