Locked out union workers at American Crystal Sugar Company are blaming fires at plants in Dayton, N.D., and in East Grand Forks, Minn., on untrained scabs hired to replace them. The company and local fire departments say the fires were in pulp dryers last Thursday at the facility in Dayton and on Friday at the East Grand Forks plant. There were no injuries.
Union President John Riskey blamed the fires on untrained replacement workers brought in to operate American Crystal Sugar's five factories after union workers were locked out five weeks ago following their rejection of what the company called its final contract offer.
The company sought to have workers pay part of the cost of health care benefits and to have the right to contract out for work now done by regular employees, a move workers believe would destroy their union, Local 167G of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Gran Millers union.
The company is trying to portray the fires as events that sometimes happen and that are unconnected to their use of scab labor. American Crystal Sugar's vice president, Brian Ingulsrud, told the press that the company was not worried about replacement workers conducting the beet harvest.
The union says that two separate fires happening just as equipment is pressed into service for the sugar harvest would be unlikely if the regular trained workers were on the job. Union spokesman Mark Froemke said the company is not releasing information about the fires.
"Do things like this happen when we're there? Absolutely. But I've never seen anything such a colossal mess as what's occurring today, and the truth is it's not an everyday occurrence," said Froemke.
Froemke noted that sugar beets are now starting to pile up in the factories and that untrained workers have to deal with hot juice, steam and heavy equipment.
"Such fires do happen, but for them to happen so close together on the first days of slice, it's uncommon for two factories to have fires in the pulp dryer," said union worker Mike Nordrum. "I've been here for 30 years. Most of my co-workers have 20 years plus in there. It's not our first time around the block. We've done this before and we know what we're doing."
The East Grand Forks fire department said there were flames and fire outside the pulp dryer, which is not normally the case in these fires, according to union workers.
"This is costing the farmers who own the company. It's costing them money for these kinds of tragic errors being made by the Crystal Sugar's management team," Froemke said.
"When you put poorly trained replacement workers into these facilities, preventable accidents can and will happen. This is exactly what happened," said Riskey. "American Crystal Sugar is gambling both with safety and the economic success of this year's harvest. It's time to stop playing this dangerous game, end this lockout, and get back to the negotiating table."
Photo: The East Grand Forks plant earlier this year. gfpeck // CC 2.0