ST. PAUL, Minn. - American Crystal Sugar appears to be losing favor in Congress at a time when the company needs it most.
With the federal farm bill stalled in the U.S. House, 37 lawmakers, including Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison, both D-Minn., advised Crystal Sugar CEO Dave Berg to get serious about fining "common ground" with the 1,300 union workers the firm has locked out of their jobs for nearly 14 months. The lockout endangers support for the legislation, they add.
In a letter to Berg and union negotiator Steve Bertelli, federal lawmakers noted the union's "willingness to meet and discuss the issues," and called Crystal Sugar's take-it-or-leave-it approach to negotiations "troubling."
"A final agreement requires negotiation," the letter says. "It is incumbent upon the parties to bargain in good faith and genuinely seek to find common ground so that a final agreement can be reached."
Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Reps. Collin Peterson and Tim Walz, all Democrats, sent a similar letter to Berg and Bertelli last month. Peterson is the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, which fashions the farm bill.
Moorhead, Minn.-based Crystal Sugar locked out its unionized workers Aug. 1, 2011, after the employees, members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers, voted overwhelmingly to reject the company's final contract offer.
The two sides have met occasionally since then, and union negotiators have agreed to meet most of the company's demands for economic concessions, including higher health care premiums.
Rather than meet workers in the middle, Crystal Sugar countered with no notable changes to its offer, and workers have voted twice to reject it since the lockout began. They say Crystal Sugar insists on contract language that will give management the authority to contract out union members' jobs, ignore seniority in personnel decisions and bypass hard-fought grievance procedures.
Although Crystal Sugar seeks to strip its workers of their safety net, the farmer-owned cooperative is lobbying Congress fiercely to protect a safety net of its own.
Provisions in the farm bill known as the sugar program keep sugar prices artificially high by limiting domestic producers' exposure to foreign competition. Many in Congress view the sugar program as an unnecessary intervention in the free market, but supporters call it a necessary boost for rural economies.
Those supporters include many urban, pro-labor lawmakers like Ellison and McCollum. But with the current farm bill having expired at the end of September, Crystal Sugar's lockout isn't helping efforts to get a new farm bill passed into law.
The lockout "isn't in the best interests of working people, and it's not in the best interests of the sugar program," said Bill Harper, McCollum's chief of staff.
Ellison said the labor dispute is "pulling apart the building blocks of a good relationship" that has served workers and farmers well in the past.
"The company and the workers have always been supportive of the sugar program because it's made the company profitable and, historically, has allowed the company to pay the workers in a way that's fair," Ellison said. "If they want to break that arrangement, it's not going to help anyone."
Perhaps with an eye towards going it alone on Capitol Hill, Crystal Sugar has spent more than $1.8 million on federal campaign contributions this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In a letter sent Aug. 21, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called on labor-endorsed members of Congress who received Crystal Sugar campaign cash to use their "influence and stature to insist that the company resolve this dispute immediately and end the lockout" - and to return the donation if Crystal Sugar refuses.
McCollum is among a handful of lawmakers who returned the cash, Harper said.
Ellison, meanwhile, holds out hope that continued pressure from members of Congress who have worked with the company in the past will prod Berg and Crystal Sugar's farmer-shareholders toward the middle ground in negotiations.
"Why would they not want to do the right thing by the union?" Ellison said, recalling two speeches he made on the House floor about the lockout. "This is a question I've raised and I'm going to continue to raise."
On Oct. 2, the AFL-CIO said it would launch a nationwide boycott of Crystal Sugar on Oct. 15 unless the firm returned to bargaining in good faith.
Photo: Security guards block the entrance to locked out employees at American Crystal Sugar in Mason City, Iowa, Aug. 1. (Arian Schuessler/The Globe Gazette/AP). The author is the editor of the Saint Paul Union Advocate.