Demanding justice at American Crystal Sugar

January 10, 2012

Shaun Harkin reports on a bitter battle against corporate greed in the Midwest.

SOME 1,300 workers at five American Crystal Sugar Co. plants and warehouses across North Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota have been locked out since last August when they voted to reject management's contract proposal.

David Berg, the president and CEO of American Crystal, told a gathering of company shareholders: "We could give wonderful raises and unlimited health care benefits, bankrupt the company, and who benefits from that?"

Berg is a hypocrite. He has no problem giving himself a "wonderful" raise--his "compensation" jumped by 23 percent to $2.4 million in 2011. Brian Ingulsrud, American Crystal'a vice president of administration, saw his "earnings" increase from $700,000 to $809,000 last year.

As Kari Sorenson, who works in the Moorhouse, Minn., plant, said in a union statement:

We worked hard to produce a quality product until they locked us out...I'm angry that the board has rewarded CEO Dave Berg with a $2.4 million compensation package this year. And yet management are committed to taking away from the workers who've helped make this company such a success, no matter the cost to our communities.

Locked-out workers rally for support outside an American Crystal Sugar facility
Locked-out workers rally for support outside an American Crystal Sugar facility

American Crystal workers, represented by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) union, rejected the company's final offer in August by a 97 percent margin--and 92 percent of workers voted down a revised offer on November 1 because it failed to address their demands on job security and health care costs.

American Crystal is offering 17 percent pay increases over a five-year contract, but is proposing health insurance changes that would more than double workers' maximum out-of-pocket costs for family coverage. All told, this adds up to a wage cut.

In an interview, Carla Kennedy, a 30-year American Crystal veteran in Minnesota, said:

My last night of work was July 31. I was told to report at midnight. I was met by a plant manager, and he took my arm and said, "You no longer have a job here."

The bottom line is they're out to break the union. They've gotten greedy. It's happening all over America, and it's all about corporate greed. People have bent over backwards for the company. A lot of people don't want to go back, but a lot of people have to go back.

What you can do

Sign a petition calling on American Crystal CEO Dave Berg to provide a fair deal to workers.

Support the call to the United Way to pressure Berg to end the lockout or ask him to leave its Board of Trustees.

Find out more about the struggle at the American Crystal Sugar Workers Lockout website. You support workers and their families by donating to the BCTGM ACS Lockout Fund--mail checks to BCTGM International Union, Attn: ACS Lockout Fund, 4th Floor, 10401 Connecticut Avenue, Kensington, MD 20895.

The issues in this fight are all too familiar. American Crystal is the largest producer of beet sugar in the U.S. Workers slice and refine beets grown by 2,800 shareholding farmers. Between 2009 and 2011, American Crystal revenues grew by 28 percent, and the company turned an $800 million profit in 2010. That triggered big increases in compensation for Berg and other top Crystal executives.

Yet despite these tremendous gains, management is demanding that workers accept concessions. As BCTGM Local 167G President John Riskey told a reporter:

We were the ones who were responsible for helping them make those record profits. We worked our tails off to make sure that they got every beet sliced...The company is profitable, and when a company is profitable, they should share that with their employees--their hard-working employees. Why use that money to lock us out?

TO KEEP up production, the company has used a Twin Cities-based company, Strom Engineering, to recruit scabs to replace locked-out workers at all of the plants and warehouses. Workers are maintaining pickets at all five facilities between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m., but several hundred scabs are continuing limited production.

Compounding the crisis caused by the lockout, American Crystal workers in North Dakota are being denied unemployment benefits. Kim Jacobson, director of Traill County Social Services in North Dakota reported that the lockout is responsible for a 20 percent increase social work caseloads. "There's been a lot of tears shed in our offices," Jacobson said. "People who have worked their entire life. They've never once thought they would ever be in the situation that they would have to be looking for public assistance."

Thirty-year-old American Crystal worker Nathan Rahm was forced to apply for help when his savings ran out. "Your back's against the wall, and you can't get any help here, and you can't really find any good employment anywhere, so you're forced to do what you have to do to help yourself survive," he said.

Nathan's misery couldn't be more of a contrast to the high-rolling ways of Berg and the rest of Corporate America, where profits are reaching new highs. The struggle at American Crystal is a microcosm of what workers are facing across the U.S.--management has used the recession to lay off workers, pressure those remaining to work harder for less, and demand wage and benefit concessions.

At American Crystal, the attack on union power had been planned for a long time. When recordings of a November 7 shareholders' meeting became available, they revealed Berg, referring to the union, as saying, "At some point, that tumor has got to come out. That's what we're doing."

The recent big profits for American Crystal came on the back of a global spike in sugar prices and a series of strong harvests. To justify its demands for concessions, the company is claiming these conditions won't last. But workers aren't buying the scare tactics.

Management might be right in claiming that the price of sugar is due for a crash. It's also possible that Congress will eliminate or revise the federal program that props up domestic sugar prices. However, this means the time is now to strike hard at American Crystal. Company executives are banking on keeping production going while prices are still high. Workers would have tremendous leverage if they interrupted production now.

Our side needs strategies that can directly confront the employers' ability to set the terms of the struggle. With workers dispersed, looking for alternative jobs to get by, campaigning for legislation to grant unemployment benefits and applying for public assistance, the company hopes to weaken the morale and undercut support. Challenging the attempt to use "replacement workers" won't be easy, but it's the only effective means of limiting their ability to continue production.

The willingness of BCTGM members to fight for what they deserve and their refusal to allow Corporate America to get its way unopposed is an inspiration. They deserve our full solidarity in whatever ways we can provide it.

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