American Crystal Sugar workers locked outby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
Moorhead, Minn. — About 1,300 union workers at American Crystal Sugar were locked out when they showed up for work Monday morning after voting to reject the company's final contract offer over the weekend. Union members say this is their first serious labor dispute with American Crystal Sugar in 30 years. But it's also the first time the company has dramatically changed its offer on health care and union job security.
Dozens of workers carrying 'No Lockout' signs stood in the rain outside the factory gates at American Crystal Sugar's Moorhead plant Monday as Inside replacement workers took their jobs, packaging and shipping sugar. Some cars passing by honked their support.
Zach Nelson has worked at the facility for six years. He says he'd rather be inside the factory, but simply couldn't accept the company's contract offer.
"It's the benefits. That's the biggest thing there. They're taking away our benefits. That's huge. I've got a family. My wife doesn't work and I have three kids at home so the insurancee is huge on my part," he said.
The company offered a 17 percent pay increase over five years, but Nelson says changes to the health insurance plan could cost him as much as $6,000 a year.
The old plan's maximum out-of-pocket annual expense was about $2,000 for a family.
American Crystal wanted to replace the union health plan with the plan provided to non union workers.
Brad Knapper, a 22-year veteran of the company, says that's an insult to union workers.
"When the top four guys make $700,000 to $2 million a year and they want us to have the same health care as them, well, you pay me that kind of wage and I'll reject your health care, I'll pay my health bills on my own," he said.
The company hasn't released full details of the new proposal, but said it would increase premiums and deductibles for workers
American Crystal Vice President Brian Ingulsrud acknowledges the new health plan would cost more, but he insists it's still a good deal for workers.
"We looked at a national survey that says what's typical is 59 percent gets picked up by the company and 41 percent is paid by the employee. So this 83-17 split is a very good deal for the employee."
The union disputes those figures, calling it a best case scenario, and that anyone with health problems in their family would incur much higher costs.
The other issue that has workers angry is contract language they believe threatens union jobs.
At stake is whether the company can bring in subcontractors to do work without union approval.
The company says they need more flexibility. Ingulsrud says there's no intent to replace union workers, and the union is misinterpreting the contract language.
Carol Stefonek isn't buying it. She says she's worked at American Crystal for 32 years, and for the first time she feels like the union is under attack.
"They had a record year last year, they had great profits, and we thought the relationship between labor and management was good. Now they came out with 40 pages of contract proposals that literally take away our job security," she said.
Union leaders say they've requested a meeting to resume negotiations. American Crystal says there are no immediate plans to resume contract talks.
The full scale sugar beet harvest is scheduled to start in early October.
- All Things Considered, 08/01/2011, 5:24 p.m.