VIDEO: Franken says Crystal lockout may jeopardize sugar programAfter a “very emotional and very difficult” Tuesday meeting with about 70 American Crystal Sugar Co. employees in Grand Forks, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said he is “not totally pessimistic” that a new development could end the lockout.
This is a corrected version of the original article.
After a “very emotional and very difficult” Tuesday meeting with about 70 American Crystal Sugar Co. employees in Grand Forks, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said he is “not totally pessimistic” that a new development could end the lockout.
He said he will continue to have conversations with sugar beet growers, workers and Crystal CEO Dave Berg to work toward a positive outcome.
But he told the Herald’s editorial board that he is limited on what he can do to address the labor dispute, and he said the situation could further jeopardize the future of the nation’s no-cost sugar program that is vital to the Red River Valley.
“I can’t pass legislation to make a private company settle with their workers,” he said. “You don’t do that. But what I try to do is act as a facilitator, and there have actually been periods in here where I’ve talked to the mediator and gotten something going at one time. And it didn’t solve the problem at all.”
About 1,300 union employees have been locked out by Crystal management since Aug. 1, the day after they turned down a proposed contract.
Franken said his Tuesday meeting with locked-out employees brought up the “devastating” effects of the dispute on workers who have lost their jobs, health insurance and careers they held for decades.
Some workers, he said, also discussed their feeling that Berg and company leaders are not acting in good faith to resolve the lockout and that it could be an attempt to bust the union.
Franken said he planned to call Berg and area growers to discuss the meeting and possible next steps to return to the negotiating table.
“I was in a very strong and very emotional meeting that had an effect on me, but I also now have to talk to the other side,” he said.
An American Crystal Sugar spokesman was not available for comment late Tuesday afternoon.
The situation has caused “real pain” for the workers and their families, Franken said, but it also has “undermined” the sugar program.
The “three-way cooperation” in the Red River Valley between growers, labor and business at American Crystal helped give the sugar program broad support in Congress, he said. “And now that’s being torn asunder and I fear for the sugar program.”
Franken said a plan by Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., would get rid of the sugar program entirely, and the plan could get enough support to become a reality.
Under the terms of the 2008 Farm Bill, the U.S. sugar program operates at no cost to taxpayers. It gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture the ability to limit foreign imports of sugar, controls how much sugar American farmers are allowed to sell and shifts surplus imports to ethanol production in an attempt to stabilize prices.
Continuing the program will be up to the House and Senate agriculture committees and, ultimately, the full Congress as lawmakers work on the 2012 Farm Bill.
But Franken said it would be a “disaster” with lasting consequences for the Red River Valley if the sugar program is ended.
“You have to understand the Tea Party folks, they are against it,” he said. “While all sugar people will tell you the taxpayer doesn’t pay anything, the Tea Party people say, ‘Well, consumers do. We want a free market on sugar.’ And once you do that, things get a little dicey here in the Valley.”
Johnson reports on local politics. Reach him at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send email to email@example.com.
Sen. Dick Lugar is a Republican from Indiana. His party affiliation was incorrect in the original article.