Locked-Out Crystal Sugar Workers Appeal to ND Court

Locked-Out Crystal Sugar Workers Appeal to ND Court

Some locked-out American Crystal Sugar workers appealed to North Dakota’s Supreme Court after being denied unemployment benefits; meanwhile, a Crystal Sugar executive said that replacement workers are doing a “fabulous job.”

More than 230 of the roughly 1,300 American Crystal Sugar workers who were locked out 13 months ago are petitioning North Dakota’s Supreme Court after being denied unemployment benefits, according to a report by the Associated Press (AP).

The locked-out workers filed their appeals after state employment agency Job Service North Dakota denied their unemployment benefit applications, the AP reported. The argument centers around a 30-year-old state law that says North Dakota workers are not entitled to unemployment benefits if they are out of a job “due to a strike, sympathy strike, or a claimant’s work stoppage dispute of any kind which exists because of a labor dispute,” according to the AP.

Lawyers for the company argue that the 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.

If the court rules in the workers’ favor, about 400 North Dakota workers would be affected, and they could collectively receive $4 million or more in benefits, according to the AP.

Meanwhile, American Crystal Sugar Vice President for Administration Brian Ingulsrud on Tuesday told the AP that the company’s fall sugar-beet harvest and processing is going smoothly, and the company’s replacement employees are “doing a fabulous job.”

Read the full AP story here.

Moorhead-based American Crystal Sugar—a farmer-owned co-op and the largest U.S. beet sugar producer—locked out the union workers in August 2011 after they rejected a new labor contract offer. The union representing the workers has cited language regarding job security and health care benefits as key sticking points.

Company officials and union representatives convened last month 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 met with a federal mediator on September 5, but no additional meetings have been scheduled. The company said that the negotiation deadlock indicated that “this labor dispute would not be ending in the near future.”

John Riskey, a spokesman for the union representing American Crystal Sugar’s locked-out workers, told Twin Cities Business last month that North Dakota workers planned to petition the state’s high court. He said that the company’s Minnesota workers received unemployment benefits after the lockout, but the assistance for some has been cut off, and some have filed appeals in an attempt to have those benefits reinstated.

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.