MOORHEAD, Minn. - Workers here believe that American Crystal Sugar has locked out 1,300 employees at seven plants in three states in order to take advantage of the nationwide attacks on unions.
It is one of the largest lockouts in recent labor history.
"Contracts have been renewed for 30 years. There were no strikes all those years. The (sugar beet) growers are making plenty of money; the company is piling up big profits. The only reason they're doing this is they figure they can take advantage of the big gang-up on unions, like they did in Wisconsin and Ohio . 'Why not try it now and see if we can kill the union?' they figure."
That was the view put forward Aug. 8 by Tony St. Michel, assistant head steward at the company's plant here, where he and 300 co-workers are locked out. Their union is Local 167G of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers.
The lockout followed union members' rejection of the company's final offer by a nine-to-one margin last week. Although the company offered what it called a 17 percent salary hike over five years, workers say any increase in wages, which have not been raised in seven years, would be more than wiped out by the new contract, which they say would gut benefits and job security.
Scabs are on the job at American Crystal Sugar's seven facilities 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. It is that quick replacement of the locked out workforce that has workers convinced the company never intended to negotiate seriously.
The company "planned this all along," said St. Michel, a 30-year union member. "They were placing ads for replacement workers a year ago and they've been sending their managers into the plant to learn what we do on a daily basis. Since February workers in our plant have been shadowed by managers compiling data on everything we do."
"They put slick appeals out on the Internet," he said, "trying to portray that wage offer as proof of their sincerity. They run a propaganda campaign for the public but they won't talk to their own workers."
The union has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the company of refusal to negotiate seriously.
St. Michel said the lockout is taking a huge toll on people in his part of the state, where the sugar beet industry is key to the regional economy. "If the workers are not getting a paycheck, that is hurting all the local businesses," he said.
The use of improperly trained scabs will also damage production, St. Michel said. "There's only so much time and it will be too late to process those beets. The replacement workers don't have all the skills it takes to separate out poorer quality raw materials (the beets) before processing them. Skilled workers who can make judgment calls are needed in a sugar plant," he said.
He talked about how, with his union job, he was "able to support a wife and three children and pay for a decent home. We didn't live like kings and queens," he said, "but we afforded what we needed, got good health care, good educations for the kids. If you kill the union and put an end to that you bring this whole valley down the tubes."
The union leader said locked out workers here have been cheered by support from the community.
"It's not just the incessant honking of horns from cars passing by. People are dropping off food, water and just as important, moral support," St. Michel said. "They've been making financial contributions to the special fund the union has set up. Our spirits are high and we're determined to hold on."
The special funds are important to workers left without regular paychecks. Although in Minnesota locked out workers are eligible for unemployment benefits, workers at the Hillsboro and Drayton plants in neighboring North Dakota are not eligible for those benefits.
American Crystal Sugar is cooperatively owned, with growers holding blocks of shares. Mark Schneider, chairman of the North Dakota Democratic Party, called upon the sugar beet farmers who own American Crystal to insist on an end to the lockout.
Sugar beets have commanded high prices in recent years with even the biggest of growers receiving federal subsidies and price supports.
"The region's sugar beet growers have it within their power to stop this lockout before it takes any further toll upon the workers, families or the economy," Schneider said. "Sugar beet growers should be appealing to their higher angels, contacting the company and telling it to end this debilitating management lockout of American Crystal employees."
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)