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AMERICAN CRYSTAL SUGAR: After another contract rejection, what's the hold up?

MOORHEAD -- Locked-out American Crystal Sugar workers rejected the latest contract proposal this week by an overwhelming margin. It was the second time they've done so during the three-month-old lockout.

MOORHEAD -- Locked-out American Crystal Sugar workers rejected the latest contract proposal this week by an overwhelming margin. It was the second time they've done so during the three-month-old lockout.

What's standing in the way of a deal? To get a handle on the issues still in dispute, we talked with Brian Ingulsrud, American Crystal's vice president of administration, and Ross Perrin, a local union head steward. Both have been involved in the negotiation process.

Here, we run down many -- but not all -- of the current sticking points:

Health care costs

- Under the old contract: Union workers paid no premiums, and had a maximum annual out-of-pocket cost of $650 per individual or $1,950 per family.


- The company's position: The company wants to keep union employees on their old plan, which has relatively modest co-pays and deductibles, until the end of 2012 After that, union employees would switch to a plan where they pay 17 percent of health care premiums while the company pays 83 percent. The company says that's what nonunion employees, including managers, now pay.

The change would raise an employee's maximum out-of-pocket expense for family coverage to $4,325 per year. The company says those costs are greatly outstripped by proposed pay increases.

- The union's position: The union wants to keep the old plan, but offset some of the costs to the company with concessions in other areas. For instance, it has proposed a switch from its current one-tier drug co-pay plan, where generic and brand-name drugs cost the same, to a three-tiered plan where employees pay more for pricier drugs.

It has also offered a higher deductible for employees. Under the old plan, the deductible was $150 per person or $450 for families.

Subcontracting rules

- Under the old contract: Except in emergencies, the company had to give the union 15 days' notice before awarding a nonunion subcontract, and 10 days to discuss the proposal.

- The company's position: The company says it is looking to streamline those rules. It wants to reduce the days to five days, and the discussion window to two days. It also wants to clarify when such subcontracting is permissible -- for instance, in situations where there are not enough union employees to do a job, or where those employees don't have the proper expertise.

The company added language that specifies that subcontracting will not lead to layoffs or job cuts.


- The union's position: Union leaders say they're in agreement on shortening the process. But members have expressed discomfort with the language, saying they feel it threatens job security.

Leaders say the addition of assurances that union jobs won't be cut actually makes them wary of the company's intent.

Year-round employee status

- Under the old contract: Plant employees who don't work year-round -- known as campaign workers -- were eligible for year-round status and the associated benefits once they work 75 percent of the scheduled work days in a year.

- The company's position: The company is seeking to raise that threshold to 85 percent, and add a skills test to make sure those employees are qualified for mechanical and plant work as well as processing. The company also wants to add the ability to designate employees as year-round regardless of hours worked.

The company says the old threshold is dated. When it was written, the company says, campaigns were shorter and the 75 percent threshold was a better indicator of an employee's year-round value than it is today.

- The union position: The union wants to keep the threshold closer to 75 percent. Union leaders say they're open to some movement on that position, but that an 85 percent cut-off would effectively bar most campaign workers from year-round status because there aren't enough work days during the harvest.

Rules for hiring


- Under the old contract: In the previous contract, applications for job postings were to be weighed "on the basis of plant seniority" provided the applicant was able and qualified to do the job, giving preference to current employees over outside hires.

- The company's position: Under the company's most recent proposal, the company is "entitled to select the most qualified individual for the position," using seniority as a tiebreaker. The company says it wants broader latitude to hire and promote the most qualified employees

- The union's position: The union wants to retain the language that gives current employees a leg up over outside hires, saying that system has worked well to date.


- Under the old contract: Paid time off, such as sick leave or paid vacation, counted toward overtime calculations. Overtime assignments were offered on basis of seniority.

- The company's position: The company is seeking to count only actual hours worked toward overtime.

It is also seeking broader discretion to assign overtime hours "based on its business needs and to the classification deemed appropriate by the Company."

The company says it's looking to simplify the process of assigning overtime and put less pressure on factory supervisors who make those decisions.

- The union's position: The union wants to preserve preference toward senior employees in overtime assignments. The union says those preferences help curb the possibility of favoritism or arbitrary choices in overtime assignments.

The union also wants to continue to count paid time off toward overtime calculations.

The grievance process

- Under the old contract: Grievances between employees and the company were resolved through a process that eventually triggered arbitration if the dispute went far enough.

- The company's position: The company wants to amend the process so the losing party pays the fees and expenses of the arbitrator.

- The union's position: The union wants to strike that provision, which union officials say tilts the process in favor of the company because the company is more readily able to absorb those costs than its employees. The union says it has proposed other changes to streamline the grievance process.

Retention of seniority

- Under the old contract: Employees who take a medical leave or leave of absence of more than a year retained seniority and had jobs waiting for them when they returned.

- The company's position: The company wants to amend the rules so most employees with leaves of that length would lose continuous service status and the associated benefits.

The company says that change is in keeping with best practices, and fits with a broader goal of de-emphasizing seniority and emphasizing qualifications.

- The union's position: The union wants to retain the seniority and job protections of the previous system.

Return-to-work terms

- Under to old contract: Return-to-work language, which provides the framework for bringing employees back into the fold after a lockout ends, is new to this bargaining session.

- The company's position: The company's most recent offer states: "It is the goal of American Crystal Sugar Co. and United Sugars Corp. that eligible employees will return to work with (sic) 10 days of the date the contract is ratified by Union membership."

The company says it intends to recall all employees who would normally be working. It says the "goal" language was related to the timeframe -- they're not sure exactly how long it will take to get everyone back to work. The "eligible employees" portion pertains to the fact that some employees typically don't work this time of year.

- The union's position: Union leaders say that language is overly vague and doesn't offer sufficient guarantees that employees will be hired back. They want firmer assurances that locked-out workers will get their jobs back.

This article is by The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. The Forum and the Herald are both Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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