The area’s AFL-CIO unions are getting back into boycott mode after a long hiatus because of American Crystal Sugar Co.’s 14-month lockout of union workers seeking a new contract.
The Hawkeye Labor Council is asking members and other consumers not to purchase American Crystal Sugar products and retailers to take them off their shelves.
Morehead, Minn.-based American Crystal Sugar is a cooperative owned by about 3,000 shareholders who raise 500,000 acres of sugarbeets in the Red River Valley of Minnesota and South Dakota. It is also the largest producer of beet sugar in the United States.
The company locked out 1,300 members of the Bakery Confectionery and Tobacco Workers Union out of its plants in August 2011 after the union rejected the company’s last and final offer. The affected workers included 23 employees at the company’s United Sugar distribution facility in Mason City, which is now being operated by non-union replacement workers.
The AFL-CIO endorsed the boycott effective Oct. 15. Hawkeye Labor Council Executive Director Rick Moyle said the union is joining in because of American Crystal Sugar’s failure to bargain in good faith with the union to reach a new contract.
“In actuality, the AFL-CIO doesn’t do this too often,” he said. “This is a always a last resort in an attempt to get American Crystal Sugar back to the table to bargain in good faith and get these people back to work.”
Moyle said the labor council hasn’t decided whether to take direct action such as leafleting consumers or picketing at locations where American Crystal Sugar is sold.
American Crystal Sugar spokesman Brian Ingulsrud said the company locked out workers largely because it would be at economic risk from fresh sugar beet spoilage if it allowed the union members to work without a contract. If union members had decided to strike, he said the company could have suffered spoilage losses because it could not process them.
One major point of friction in the contract talks has been changes in the company’s medical insurance plan that shift more costs to employees.
Ingulsrud said the company believes it made a “very fair offer of a 17 percent increase on top of a $75,000 average pay and benefits package for a year-around employee,” in the five-year contract offer. He said the offer still stands.
Iowa AFL-CIO President Ken Sagar said the union rightly objected to the company’s efforts to gut health care benefits and protections against outsourcing.
“What alternative do the workers have?” Sagar said of this month’s boycott.
AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka has blasted American Crystal Sugar for refusing to return to the bargaining table with the union. He said American Crystal Sugar CEO David Berg has received pay increases totaling 50 percent over the past two years as the company has achieved record profits.
American Crystal Sugar is listed as the top political contributor to sitting members of Congress in Iowa by the nonpartisan research organization MapLight, with $78,000 in contributions for the most recent contribution year.