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Locked out American Crystal workers plan rally at N.D. Capitol

BISMARCK -- Locked-out union workers at American Crystal Sugar's North Dakota plants say they will rally Wednesday at the state Capitol to urge legislators to reconsider their exclusion from North Dakota's unemployment compensation system.

BISMARCK -- Locked-out union workers at American Crystal Sugar's North Dakota plants say they will rally Wednesday at the state Capitol to urge legislators to reconsider their exclusion from North Dakota's unemployment compensation system.

With some workers coming Wednesday morning by bus from the Red River Valley, they say they're hoping for a turnout of well over 100 people.

Workers at the company's Minnesota plants are able to claim unemployment benefits in that state, and Sen. Phil Murphy, D-Portland, had tried to introduce a bill in this week's special legislative session to make locked-out workers at North Dakota plants eligible for similar benefits.

Murphy's bill was rejected Monday by the Senate Delayed Bills Committee, with three Republican members voting against and two Democrats voting for its introduction, as about two dozen union members watched.

"I had a worker call me today and ask, 'Is this thing dead?' I told him that hope is what we have," Murphy said Tuesday. "People have urged them to come back here to the Capitol and show some support, show some need."

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Union members huddled with sympathetic legislators Tuesday, including Murphy and Rep. Lee Kaldor, D-Mayville, who told them to "hang on." Some said they planned to return to homes in the Red River Valley tonight but return to Bismarck for the rally at mid-morning Wednesday.

Murphy said an attempt likely will be made to attach his unemployment compensation bill to the large disaster relief package making its way through the session, but he acknowledged that will be difficult.

"It's definitely an uphill fight," he said. "But my take on this situation isn't political. It's about humanity. The workers want to be working. No one wants to be on social services.

"I just want these people to get some unemployment compensation, which the company has paid for and which they need."

He said he's heard from "many, many people in Mayville, Portland and of course Hillsboro who have worked at the plant and who were active in their communities, and they're feeling helpless. I've also heard from people who say they don't want to 'coddle' the workers -- 'Just sign the contract,' they say."

Rep. Curt Kreun, R-Grand Forks, said lawmakers "don't want to get involved in the negotiations" between the company and the locked-out workers. Also, the unemployment compensation issue "doesn't get the vetting it needs in this special session," Kreun said. "You don't want to come up with a knee-jerk reaction.

"I certainly have empathy for the people involved, but knee-jerk reactions tend not to solve problems."

Republicans on the Delayed Bills Committee said Monday that legislators need to keep their focus on the few pressing issues designated for consideration during the special session. Also, Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, said, "It almost feels as if I'm being asked to choose sides, and I don't want to do that."

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Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, voted to allow the bill's introduction.

"Critical needs don't always arise at convenient times," Schneider said during the committee hearing Monday. The locked-out workers "are not making an ideological point" by asking for coverage under the state's unemployment compensation program. "They haven't had a check in months."

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