against American Crystal's lockout
'Through fight, we've learned what a union is for'
|Participants in "solidarity recognition picnic" in North Dakota's Belmont Park July 29, marking one-year anniversary in battle against lockout of 1,300 workers by American Crystal Sugar.|
BY FRANK FORRESTAL
TRAILL COUNTY, N.D.—Nearly 200 locked-out workers took part in a "solidarity recognition picnic" in Belmont Park here July 29, marking the one-year anniversary of their fight against American Crystal Sugar Co.
It was a good day. Spirits were high. Music and excellent food, especially the much talked about barbecue ribs, were enjoyed by workers and their families, who came from areas surrounding American Crystal's five factories in the Red River Valley of northern Minnesota and North Dakota.
One year ago, American Crystal Sugar, the largest sugar beet producer in the country, locked out 1,300 workers at five plants and two smaller processing facilities in Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa. In the past year, members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union have rejected three contract offers, most recently in June when 63 percent of the union membership voted down the bosses' proposal.
The company has not budged from its "final offer" from one year ago, which includes substantial concessions in job security, seniority and health care.
In the July 30 issue of the Grand Forks Herald, Brian Ingulsrud, vice president of American Crystal Sugar, said the company has no reason to negotiate because "at the end of the day, all of the issues that we have in that final offer are important to us."
Near the end of the anniversary event, Scott Ripplinger, a leader of the workers' struggle from the East Grand Forks, Minn., plant, chaired a short program. "This has been a long battle against American Crystal, longer than any of us thought possible. We are here to celebrate our resolve," he said. "But we continue to fight, to stand up for the generations before us who fought for the union, and for future generations."
Ripplinger introduced Steve Lech, president of Steelworkers Local 7-669 in Metropolis, Ill., who was part of a fight there against a lockout by Honeywell at its uranium processing plant in 2010-2011. "I want to tell you—you are not by yourselves, your rejection of the latest contract got lots of attention around the country," said Lech. "My only advice is that when you go back, know your contract because the company will try to use it against you. You will have to continue fighting as we have. Our union is behind you."
"This has been the best and worst year of my life," said Nathan Rahm, 30, a locked-out worker from American Crystal's plant in Hillsboro. All of us have had to endure hardships this past year, but we have also learned what a union is for, he said. "The union is us. After one year we are still standing strong, and we will continue to fight for a fair contract."
"Two percent" shouted one worker from the crowd in response to Rahm's comments, a reference to the fact that only 2 percent of the 1,300 workers have crossed the picket line. This was greeted with applause.
Ripplinger told the rally that the union received phone calls of support from Buddy Howard and Steve Underwood, leaders of BCTGM Local 48G, which fought a 10-month lockout against corn processor Roquette America in 2010-2011 in Keokuk, Iowa.
Becki Jacobson, from American Crystal's factory in Moorhead, Minn., and John Riskey, president of BCTGM Local 167G, also spoke at the rally. Jacobson saluted the workers locked out from the factories in Hillsboro and Drayton, who have been denied unemployment benefits by the North Dakota state government. Benefits will soon be running out for locked-out workers in Minnesota as well.
The majority of the locked-out workers are working or looking for work.
"We're here to celebrate our determination and the huge sacrifices our families have made to affirm our dignity. Let's keep fighting," said Riskey.
A few days before the anniversary rally, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, announced at a press conference in St. Paul, Minn., that the federation is planning a national campaign against American Crystal Sugar. During the conference he handed John Riskey a check for $25,000. Trumka didn't mention specifics, but indicated the campaign might include a boycott of American Crystal and a lobbying effort against the government's sugar program, which provides subsidies and imposes protectionist measures to prop up the sugar growing and processing industry in the U.S.
"The campaign will escalate until American Crystal negotiates," the AFL-CIO president said. "We will win in the end."
Trumka's announcement was closely watched by locked-out workers across the Red River Valley and received mixed reactions.
"I thought it was good, even though late in the game," said Wayne Netterlund, a locked-out worker from Drayton. "I thought he should have addressed the fact that union workers are crossing our picket lines," referring to four different unions there. "Pressure needs to be put on them to make them stop crossing our line which only helps American Crystal," he said.
Ripplinger said the additional contributions raised by AFL-CIO unions should be put to immediate use, saying funds are needed for "action planning, solidarity work, and corporate campaign work."
"I was disappointed in what Trumka had to say," said Terry Holm, former president of the BCTGM local in Hillsboro. "The media said he was going to make a major announcement, but there was nothing really to sink your teeth into. We'll see what it means."
Messages of support and contributions for the sugar workers can be sent to BCTGM Local 167G, 100 N 3rd, Suite 50, Grand Forks, ND 58203. Make checks payable to BCTGM 167G with "2011 BCTGM lockout" in memo line.