The 12 million member AFL-CIO labor federation is putting its muscle, and money, into the nearly year-long American Crystal Sugar Co. lockout.
“We will escalate this campaign for fairness and justice to the next level,” national AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka announced during a brief Wednesday St. Paul visit.
Other than promising to send $25,000 to unions representing 1,300 people out of work, with funds more to come, he gave no specifics about what the campaign his organization and local Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union groups will do to fight the company.
Trumka said “nothing is off the table” when reporters asked whether the campaign could include boycotts of the company’s products. He hinted the unions may lobby against legislation Crystal wants, such as a federal farm bill that would continue sugar grower subsidies.
The union leader said the campaign both will be to put pressure on the company to agree to a new contract and to help workers who have been out of work since last Aug. 1.
Workers off the job come from five Red River Valley plants, as well as Crystal operations in Iowa and near the Twin Cities.
A local union president from the northern Red River Valley said his members will be encouraged when they hear the news.
“This will bring it to the nation,” John Riskey said, which will put pressure on the company.
While the campaign could get nasty, he said, communities around Crystal plants already are tense. “They won’t talk to each other,” he said of people on the two sides of the issue.
“Maybe the AFL-CIO can help find new ways to put pressure on Crystal,” Riskey added.
Among things Trumka said the union group would do is provide research on Crystal to help local unions better negotiate.
“I admire the courage of … workers to stand up against this kind of greed,” Trumka said.
The company did not appear bothered by the campaign.
“We have a big crop that we’re getting ready to harvest and we are very happy with the replacement employees we have in place,” Crystal spokesman Brian Ingulsrud said. “They’re excited about being ready to process the big crop we think we have coming. We’re very happy with the job they’ve done so far and are very excited about the training they’ve been able to do this summer.
“We are looking forward to doing the work we have with the work force we have in place.”
Gayln Olson said that Americans need to know that replacement workers are processing the sugar.
“Is the product as good as it was when we had union workers there?” asked the president of the Hillsboro, N.D., based local union.
Olson answered his own question by saying he does not think so.
In North Dakota, Olson said, many union members did not receive state unemployment benefits and were forced to take lower-paying jobs, so the AFL-CIO help is appreciated.
Trumka said he is taking on the campaign for future generations. He said many Crystal workers are second- and third-generation employees and he wants their children to have a chance to work for what he said once was a good employer.
In the past year, union workers have rejected the company’s contract proposal three times, citing problems with its job security and seniority provisions. The company says it has made a good offer with major wage and benefit increases.
Moorhead-based American Crystal is the country’s largest sugar beet processor.
Chris Bieri of the Grand Forks Herald contributed to this story.