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VIEWPOINT: For the valley's sake, get back to the bargaining table

As a Minnesota U.S. senator, I am a fervent supporter of the U.S. sugar program, which places strict limits on the amount of sugar produced in and imported into the United States, ensuring a stable market and price for American sugar producers, i...

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.
U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.

As a Minnesota U.S. senator, I am a fervent supporter of the U.S. sugar program, which places strict limits on the amount of sugar produced in and imported into the United States, ensuring a stable market and price for American sugar producers, including the American Crystal Sugar Co-op here in the Red River Valley.

Not only do those directly involved in the sugar industry benefit, but the economic vitality of all the communities up and down the valley is tied to the health of the sugar industry, and, in turn, the sugar program.

There have been no greater advocates of the sugar program in Minnesota and in Washington, D.C. than the 1,300 union members who work for ACS. Indeed when advocates from the valley have paid visits to the halls of Congress, it has been sugar workers who have spoken powerfully in support of the sugar program alongside growers and management. In fact, it has been this three-way partnership which has spoken so eloquently to members of Congress from all over the country.

There are members of Congress whose natural constituency is agriculture; some who see themselves as champions of business, and others who fight for workers. The valley's three-way partnership has enabled Congress to form a consensus on the sugar program.

Knowing that the program has worked so well for so many years for the hardworking growers who produce such a large percentage of our nation's sugar beets and for the dedicated workers and skilled management, who turn those beets into the highest quality sugar in the world, has played no small role in creating this consensus.

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My concern is that the current lockout is threatening to tear at the fabric of this partnership. Growers, workers, and management are all important members of a community. I am hearing reports of family members and life-long friends who avoid each other or can't look each other in the eye when they run into each other at church or a store.

Union members are feeling a sense of betrayal as replacement workers from the outside are working jobs into which they poured their hearts and souls, not to mention decades of their lives. I fear that if this lockout goes on too much longer there will be irreparable harm done to the valley's sense of community and ultimately to the consensus on sugar in Congress.

The valley's sugar beet industry has done very well in the last several years. The valley does well when sugar does well and when every member of the industry shares in that prosperity. Workers and growers spend their money in the valley, buying homes and shopping in valley establishments, and add to the richness of the valley's life, coaching hockey and Little League, and providing leadership at church and their kids' schools.

If the three-way partnership is allowed to dissolve, so may the consensus on the successful sugar program, which has been so instrumental to prosperity in the valley.

As harvest approaches, it is time for the growers and management to discuss whether continuing this lockout is in the industry's or the valley's best interest. It may not be worth the risk - to the community or to the survival of the sugar program.

It is time to get back to the table.

Al Franken

Franken is a U.S. senator from Minnesota

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