Union workers say corporate greed caused American Crystal Sugar’s lockout

Members from 11 Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers (BCTGM) locals representing sugar workers rallied on April 14 at the gates of an American Crystal Sugar (ACS) plant in East Grand Forks, Minnesota to support 1,300 BCTGM members who have been locked out for eight months by ACS.

“The entire BCTGM International is behind the locked out ACS members,” said David Durkee, BCTGM secretary treasurer at the rally. “We will stand strong with them as long as it takes to win justice.”

ACS on August 1 locked out workers at its sugar beet processing facilities in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Iowa after 96 percent of them rejected a new contract proposal that would have cut their health care benefit, reduced their take home pay, and outsourced more of their work.

Workers said that ACS’s concession demands were unfair because the company has been highly profitable and has increased its top executives’ pay over the last two years by between 34 percent and 52 percent.

On April 19, ACS, a sugar beet processing cooperative, held a special closed-door meeting of shareholders at which it announced that this year’s payout would be 24 percent lower pay than last year’s. Outside of the meeting, picketing BCTGM members  blamed the shareholders’ loss on the company’s lockout.

“They’re just losing money, instead of giving us a good contract, a fair contract,” said Mike Garcia, a Local 167G member to Valley News Live. The local union estimates that productivity at the processing plants has declined by as much as one-third since the company hired replacement workers.

Valley News Live reports that the shareholder payment will drop from $73 per ton last year to a projected $59 per ton this year. One grower said that the lower payout will cost his 1,000 acre farm about $300,000 this year.

The lockout appears to be part of a company strategy to bust the union. ACS CEO Dave Berg in November compared the lockout to cancer treatment designed to remove a tumor, which company management had been planning for some time.

The lockout, however, has had far-reaching effects beyond workers and shareholders. A report issued by the union in November finds that the lock has cost the local economy of the Red River Valley where ACS’s plants are located about $30 million–$12 million in lost worker purchasing power and $18 million in indirect costs.

The union contends that workers and the community that supports ACS are suffering because of ACS’s greed, whose 2011 net revenue totaled $1.5 billion, up from $1.2 billion in 2010.

While ACS was demanding concessions from workers, whose wages range from $30,000 to $50,000 per year, it was giving top management generous raises. CEO Berg’s 2011 salary was $2.4 million, 50 percent higher than his 2009 salary. Chief Financial Officer Joseph Talley’s salary topped $1 million, up from about $750,000 in 2009.

BCTGM has organized a corporate campaign to fight back against this corporate greed. Earlier this month, locked out ACS workers rallied at a North Dakota customer meeting of CoBank, a banking cooperative that provides multiple credit lines totaling $370 million to ACS.

“CoBank customers need to be aware of the actions their bank is taking,” said Tony St. Michel, a locked out worker. “Their investments could be in jeopardy because Crystal Sugar executives are mismanaging the company.”

“Crystal Sugar management has told shareholders that they planned this lockout for a long time, and that it would cost them a lot of money,” said Nathan Rahm, another ACS worker. “Management sees gutting our contract and killing our communities as an investment in their future, in lining their own pockets. CoBank, by investing in Crystal Sugar, is supporting this lockout and the devastation it’s causing in our communities up and down the Valley.”

In February, ACS workers joined locked out workers from Cooper Tires in Findlay, Ohio in a March for Justice that began in North Dakota and ended in Ohio. The purpose of the march was to dramatize the corporate greed driving a spate of lockouts that companies across the US and Canada have been using to drive down wages and benefits.

Cooper Tires workers returned to work in March after workers voted to ratify a new contract that their union, USW Local 207L, and the company negotiated.

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