Union workers at American Crystal Sugar plants in Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa expect to return to work soon now that they approved a contract last Saturday.
The company locked out 1,300 workers, members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers in August 2011.
Prior to the contract's approval by 55 percent of those voting late last week, the company's 1,300 workers had rejected a very similar contract four times and had been locked out of their jobs for 20 months.
The long lockout gradually weakened resistance to what the workers consider unfair givebacks demanded by American Crystal.
In the last vote on Dec. 1, 55 percent of the workers rejected the company offer. Earlier, in June 63 percent had given the offer the thumbs-down. The contract was first rejected by 96 percent of the workers in the summer of 2011.
The company basically gave the workers its final offer that summer of 2011 and hasn't yielded much since then. Brian Ingulsrud, the company's vice president, said he was pleased that "our employees have accepted the contract and that they'll be coming back to work."
After thanking the public, community organizations and unions across the region and throughout the country for their support of the locked out workers, the union president tried to put a positive light on the decision to accept the company offer.
"This means Crystal Sugar's skilled, experienced workers will be transitioning back to the factories to start repairing the damage that's been done over the past 20 plus months," said John Riskey, president of BCTGM Local 167G."The lockout was dragging the company down. Somebody needed to step up to the plate and put families and communities first and especially our children. It's time to move on."
The union says un-trained replacement workers the company hired ended up damaging equipment and even caused life-threatening explosions in the plant.
Riskey said he would work to "make sure everything is right" for workers returning to the plants.
The mills continued operating for the 20 months of the lockout because the company hired scabs. The union has maintained that the use of replacement workers has driven up the company's operating costs.
Some 640 union workers had quit or retired from American Crystal Sugar between the time the lockout began and April of this year. The union and the company both say most of the rest of the union workers should return to their jobs in the next 40 days or so.
The company is hinting, however, that it is not overly anxious to make things easy for returning workers.
"The transition to bring them back to work is going to be complex, and we'll work through that. I think that everybody is going to need to be patient as we work through the process," said Ingulsrud. "We have to integrate our lockout employees back into the workforce."
American Crystal Sugar isn't doing the workers any favors when it agrees to return the workers to their jobs. Federal labor law mandates that when locked out workers agree to a contract they must be returned to their jobs. "Workers will be given their jobs back and 99 percent of the time they will be given back the exact same job they had," Ingulsrud said.
When they go back on the job union workers face the prospect of having to work side by side with the scabs who replaced them, scabs whose presence allowed the company to keep the lockout going for 20 month. The company says that the combination of the resignations by union workers and job openings should allow it to keep most of the replacement workers on the job.
The contract the union workers rejected back in 2011 raised wages by 13 percent over five years but significantly increased workers' health care costs by switching them from a union plan to a company plan.
Workers also rejected the "management rights" clause in that original contract which gave managers control over promotions where union seniority rules usually were used to determine them.
Crystal Sugar is a farmer-owned cooperative and is the nation's largest beet sugar producer. Skilled workers who had to go without their average $40,000 per year earnings suffered tremendously over the 20 months with many small businesses that depended on their income also suffering, the union says.
Photo: The union thanked the public for its many actions in support of the locked out workers, among them this candle light vigil in front of the corporate offices in Moorhead, Minn., Nov. 30, 2011. David Samson, The Forum/AP