Ethics Are in the Eye of the Beholder

Ethics Are in the Eye of the Beholder

In response to an Editor's Note about American Crystal Sugar.

I read with interest your thoughts on the American Crystal Sugar strike and contract vote (Editor’s Note, May 2013). I was particularly interested because I personally know some of the key players involved. Also, as a columnist for the Business Journal newspapers, I try to keep abreast of such matters.

I must take exception to your editorial on several counts. First, you claim that management at Crystal Sugar is to blame for coming to the bargaining table with no intention of negotiating from their initial position. While this may be true, it is also true that union employees were happy to get a raise and signing bonus, but weren’t happy to give something in return. The union made it clear that they, too, had no intention of moving from their position. Crystal Sugar came to the union with the best offer they could. When the union turned down the offer, you labeled Crystal Sugar unethical. Why not give the union the same label for also being unwilling to negotiate?

You also take Crystal Sugar to task for having replacement workers waiting in case the union rejected the contract. In the months leading up to the vote, the union made it clear to the company that any offer that did not meet their full demands would result in a strike. And let’s be clear, this was not a lockout, it was a strike, when it comes to the union’s intent. A lockout implies that the company refused to let willing employees work. A strike is an attempt by employees to cripple a company and force concessions by removing the workforce. If the union made it clear that it would not accept the contract, what right-minded company would enter negotiations without a back-up plan? The back-up plan for the union was to strike. The back-up plan for the company was to have an alternate workforce. Both sides acted within their rights, but you considered only the actions of Crystal Sugar to be unethical.

The union acted in ways that could easily be considered unethical. If an employee chose not to attend a vote, his or her vote was automatically cast as a rejection of the contract. If our government said, “You must either vote for the Democratic candidate or we will consider your absence a vote for the Republican candidate,” you would consider that unethical behavior.

During the strike, the contract was put to a vote five times. In each instance, the union rejected the contract. Why is the stubbornness of the union ethical, yet the stubbornness of the company vilified?

You cited seniority rights as a coveted element of most collective bargaining agreements. Seniority should be respected and rewarded, but not at the expense of employees and management. As a corporate trainer, I have seen seniority rights drive companies to utter desperation. While working with a large hotel chain, I personally witnessed restaurant servers who refused to follow the simplest rules of employment. When I asked management why these servers were given the best shifts, I was told that the employees had seniority and could choose any shift they wanted. I attended meetings in which union representatives were told of poor behavior that led to the dismissal of an employee, only to hear the union reply, “Yeah, we know she’s pretty bad, but you’ve got to hire her back or we’re going to have problems with the rest of the staff.”

Is this not unethical behavior? You are correct that seniority rights are a cornerstone of union principles, but shouldn’t holding employees to the highest standard of behavior also rank among a union’s chief responsibilities?

Don’t take this as simple union-bashing. I conducted a training session for a factory in St. Paul in which the union and management had a wonderful relationship. Employees were treated well and there existed no division between management and employee. The atmosphere was so respectful that when union leaders from headquarters would visit each year, they told the employees to enjoy what they had because no other factory in the country had such good conditions. And this is just one of hundreds of examples in which unions and companies work together for the good of everyone. However, this will not happen if the first assumption is that any conflict must be the fault of the company.

You cite job security as a fundamental right of a union employee. I agree that the ability of some companies to simply show an employee the door for no good reason is appalling. Progress must be made toward protecting employees who are vulnerable to the whims of unreasonable supervisors. Crystal Sugar, however, is not such a place. The skills necessary to safely operate the machinery in sugar processing plants are not easily learned. Any employee who performs his or her duties well is a valued member of the company and has/had no fear of removal. During the strike, Crystal Sugar experienced many difficulties, most of them due to working with a less-than-experienced workforce. But the company simply could not pay more than what they offered, and they could no longer afford to promote employees based on seniority instead of job performance. The fact that they stood strong on this principle makes Crystal Sugar an ethical company, not unethical.

Op-eds are about opinion. I respect opinion; frankly, many of my own columns are my own take on the business world. But a piece such as the one you just wrote, ending with “Crystal Sugar is a soulless operator of sugar beet processing plants,” has no place in legitimate news magazines.

Stevie Ray is executive director of Stevie Ray’s Improv Company and a management consultant in Minneapolis.

To read the June Editor's Note by Dale Kurschner, Twin Cities Business' editor in chief, which responds to Ray's letter, click here.