American Crystal union workers reject contract

Locked-out union employees at American Crystal Sugar Co. rejected the company's contract proposal a third time Saturday.

The union announced that 63 percent of voters opted against the latest offer. It also said that 82 percent of the 1,300 union members that have been out of work for nearly a year took part in the vote.

"We know that give-and-take negotiations are the only way to get this cooperative back on track to productivity and profitability," the union statement said. "That cooperation has produced record profits in recent years, and, only through cooperating, will we be successful again."

A message left with American Crystal vice president Brian Ingulsrud was not immediately returned Saturday evening.

There was no statement immediately posted on the company's website about Saturday's vote.

The labor dispute, the company's first in 30 years, focuses on seniority and job security. Union employees said Crystal was out to break the union, while the company has said it offered a good contract with substantial increases in wages and benefits

American Crystal is the largest sugar beet processor in the country, with plants in North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. It's a cooperative owned by beet farmers.

The company has said it will continue to operate with replacement workers.

The company's original offer included a 17 percent wage increase over five years — which is now closer to 14 percent because the contract had a deadline — and increased pension, leave and vacation benefits. The union continued to demand wage and pension increases "significantly above" the final offer, company officials have said.

The union's first vote, held before the lockout, turned down the contract with a 96 percent "no" vote. The second vote in November was 90 percent against the deal.

After the last negotiating session on June 8, the union said that its principal objections revolve around health care, drug testing, seniority and qualifications for promotions. The union said the company made it clear in that meeting its not willing to compromise on any issue.

The union's statement Saturday also thanked "relatives, friends, neighbors and union sisters and brothers" for supporting the locked-out workers.

"Your strong support will continue to be needed as we strive to reach a fair resolution," the statement said.

After the June negotiating session, American Crystal said in a statement that the "parties remain far apart."

Fearing a strike in the middle of processing season, the company locked out workers on Aug. 1 and hired replacements. Company officials expect the plants to ramp up production in mid-August this year, earlier than normal because of a large sugar crop.

American Crystal has plants in East Grand Forks, Moorhead, Crookston and Chaska, Minn.; Hillsboro and Drayton, N.D.; and Mason City, Iowa.


Associated Press writer Erica Hunzinger in Chicago contributed to this report.