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Possible labor dispute for American Sugar downplayed

Business and union leaders are downplaying the suggestion that a contentious letter over contract negotiations at American Crystal Sugar Co. could turn into a full-blown labor dispute.

American Crystal Sugar
American Crystal Sugar

Business and union leaders are downplaying the suggestion that a contentious letter over contract negotiations at American Crystal Sugar Co. could turn into a full-blown labor dispute.

The possibility arose in a Monday letter that American Crystal sent to company employees stating that, following a labor union's decision not to meet with them in December, it had "no alternative but to begin to prepare for the possibility of a labor dispute."

John Riskey, president of Grand Forks-based union chapter of Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM), which represents American Crystal employees, said it's unlikely a labor dispute would ever happen. He said workers in his chapter found the letter ill-timed during the holiday season and its tone threatening, but there's little potential for any kind of significant conflict between laborers and American Crystal.

"There's no need to worry," Riskey said. "I don't think Crystal Sugar can afford another long, extensive lockout."

Riskey was referring to the roughly two-year lockout that lasted from August 2011 to May 2013, during which American Crystal barred about 1,300 union workers from its facilities following the members' rejection of a contract proposal. Over the course of the lockout, retirement and departure to other jobs whittled the union workers' ranks down to about 400. The rejected offer would have given workers a 13 percent raise in the coming five years but also would have cut seniority rights and health care benefits.

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There are more than 1,000 workers in Riskey's chapter of the BCTGM, he said, more than 700 of whom work in American Crystal facilities in East Grand Forks, Moorhead and Drayton, N.D.

The letter came on the heels of private discussions between the union and American Crystal leadership concerning the current employee contract, which lasts through July 31, 2017.

"We invited them to meet with us, and they determined they weren't interested in it," Lisa Borgen, vice president of administration for American Crystal, said of the letter. "We're disappointed in it, but we don't feel there is a standoff."

Riskey said union leaders, approached by the company earlier in the month, felt it was far too soon to begin discussing the matter.

"The union welcomes any opportunity for meaningful negotiations with management about things that matter to them and things that matter to us," he said. "We never did decline (to negotiate).

We just told them that it was too early to sit down and too early to discuss negotiations when the contract isn't up until 2017."

Riskey voiced some frustration with the content of the company's letter. He said several specifics on the negotiations were not initially mentioned by the company prior to a Nov. 23 response to union leadership-more than a week after discussions first opened-including a signing bonus for negotiations and a December timeline for talks.

Borgen said the company was clear at every step about what they wanted to negotiate, laying out an attempt to extend the contract by negotiating new "economic" portions before the end of December and offer a signing bonus.

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"What the letter was was an invitation to the union to sit down and have a meeting to discuss the issues," she said. "The invitation was a good-faith effort on our part to avoid any labor disputes in the future."

She added the future of negotiations are up to the union. The company's suggestion it is preparing for a labor dispute, she said, is something the company does only as a contingency.

"I would say the ball is in the union's court," she said. "We made the first overture. We're very willing to meet with them whenever they want to."

Riskey said he hopes future negotiations can focus on rising health care costs for American Crystal employees-workers with Michigan Sugar and the Idaho-based Amalgamated Sugar pay far less, he said-as well as promotional procedures and workplace safety.

Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the Chamber of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, acknowledged the importance American Crystal plays in the local economy, but called the back-and-forth between the union and corporate leadership "business as usual" for any two negotiating groups.

"It's way too early to read anything into it at this point," he said. "I think any news story would be much ado about nothing."

Riskey said he hopes future negotiations can focus on rising health care costs for American Crystal employees - workers with Michigan Sugar and the Idaho-based Amalgamated Sugar pay far less, he said - as well as promotional procedures and workplace safety. He added the union would be willing to negotiate in the near future provided it has ample time to clear its schedule and can equally share in choosing negotiating topics.

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