The labor movement today launched a nationwide boycott against American Crystal Sugar in response to the company's 14-month lockout of more than 1,300 workers. The company's attack on its workers at seven plants in Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa is one of the largest lockouts in recent labor history.
American Crystal Sugar products being boycotted include American Crystal Sugar bags of sugar labeled Crystal Sugar and Target Private Label sugar in Target stores in Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin.
"Making record profits while giving working families and communities the shaft is just plain wrong," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a statement issued today. "Workers want to rejoin the American Crystal Sugar family, but shouldn't be expected to give up their voice on the job."
Workers have said from the beginning that the lockout was part of a master plan to destroy their union, Local 1678G of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco and Grain Millers.
According to Tony St. Michel, assistant head steward at the American Crystal plant in Moorhead, Minn., "Contracts have been renewed for 30 years and there were no strikes all those years. The sugar beet growers are making plenty of money; the company is piling up big profits. The reason for this is that they want to kill the union."
Scabs are on the job at seven plants in East Grand Forks, Moorhead, Crookston and Chaska, Minn., in Hillsboro and Drayton, N.D. and in Mason City, Iowa. The "replacement workers" were on the job almost immediately after the lockout began, which, workers say, proves the company never intended to negotiate seriously.
Ads were placed for replacement workers a full year before the lockout, according to St. Michel and the company, according to him, sent managers who compiled detailed data which they later used to train scabs.
David Berg, the company's CEO, admitted at a shareholder's meeting last November that the company had planned the lockout all along: "I and others, many, many, many others, mapped this out a long time ago," he said. "It will be costly. We're investing a lot of your (the shareholders') money so you'll be more profitable in the future."
At that same meeting he infamously referred to the union contract as "a cancerous tumor that has to be removed."
In September, children and grandchildren of the locked-out workers sent letters to Berg telling him how their families and communities are suffering as a result of the lockout. "I'm sorta worried that we're about to run out of food or lose our home because my dad's out of work for so long," was in a letter by ten-year-old Sophia Frank, according to the AFL-CIO Now Blog.
Workers also see the lockout as a threat to safety.
There have been fires at the plants that they say happen because of the lack of knowledge of the replacement workers.
The union said, for example, that fires that broke out when equipment was pressed into service for the sugar harvest would have been unlikely if the regular trained workers had been on the job.
"Do things like this happen when we're here? Absolutely," said union spokesperson Mark Froemke. "But I've never seen such a colossal mess as what's occurring today." Froemke explained that as sugar beets pile up in the factories after the harvest, untrained workers have to deal with hot juice, steam, and heavy equipment.
The American Crystal workers joined with locked-out Cooper Tire and Rubber workers on a "1,000 Mile Journey for Justice" from Fargo, N.D. to Findlay, Ohio last February to shine a spotlight on the rising use of lockouts as a tactic against workers.
"We have to do something dramatic to call attention to what has become a common form of warfare against workers," said Amy Faciola, who coordinated the "Journey" for the AFL-CIO. The companies figure that by locking out workers they, "at the least," she said, "drive down benefits and wages and, at best, from their point of view, they can kill unions altogether."
The labor movement is asking everyone to sign a pledge to support the locked-out workers and to boycott American Crystal Sugar products.
Photo: Dave Kolpack/AP