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American Crystal Sugar offers bonuses if labor deal set by May 22

MOORHEAD, Minn. — American Crystal Sugar Co. said it will pay $2,000 bonuses to contract employees if a new labor agreement is reached by May 22.

Company officials and factory labor union representatives met Wednesday, April 19, in Grand Forks to begin contract talks.

Both sides say they want to avoid a lockout from recurring. A labor dispute kept farmer-owned American Crystal and employees at odds for nearly two years, with union workers locked out from July 2011 to May 2013.

Lisa Borgen, vice president of administration for Moorhead-based American Crystal, posted an opening statement on the website Officials of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union didn’t immediately return phone messages or texts left Thursday.

After the meetings on the second day, Borgen said both expressed a desire to "complete the negotiations in a timely manner," she said. "Some progress is being made."'

American Crystal’s online statement didn't indicate other terms of a new contract, which would be designed to replace one that expires July 31, 2017.

American Crystal has about 1,200 employees in the union contract, located primarily at sugar beet processing and refinery locations in Moorhead, East Grand Forks and Crookston in Minnesota and Hillsboro and Drayton in North Dakota, as well as a handful of workers at storage facilities in Iowa and Minneapolis.

John Riskey, president of the BCTGM local in Grand Forks, did not immediately return texts or voice messages Thursday.

“Like we have in the past, we'll go to the table like we always have, to get a fair agreement for our members and for American Crystal Sugar,” he said in February.

In American Crystal’s statement posted online Wednesday, Borgen said the company would propose $2,000 signing bonuses for all year-round and processing campaign workers covered by the union contract if the agreement is in place before May 22. Signing bonuses would be paid to those employed May 22 through Aug. 15. Seasonal harvest employees and temporary employees aren't eligible, she said.

Failing the May 22 conclusion, she noted talks are scheduled June 6-7, as well as July 24-July 27.

Borgen said the company wants to reach agreement in a “timely manner” and offer “good paying jobs and excellent benefits.”

In addition, American Crystal wants to take a different approach in early negotiations by discussing wages and pension, which are traditionally “relegated to the absolute end of the negotiations,” Borgen said.

The company plans to limit its proposals to four specific items:

  • Providing reasonable wage and pension increases each year of the next contract.
  • Eliminating “factored rates” for employees working on their regularly scheduled 12-hour rotating shifts. “Instead, workers would be paid their full contract rate for all hours worked and all paid time off,” Borgen wrote, adding, the company believes employees will earn more under a “regular 12-hour rotating shift” than under the “factored” system.
  • Eliminating an attendance policy that requires employees to have paid time off available to be eligible for up to five unscheduled absences in a contract year.
  • Extending other parts of the existing contract, except for the above three items.

The union presented the company 17 proposals at the beginning of the first day, but Borgen didn't summarize them.

"We have come to a tentative agreement on the company proposal involving the attendance policy," Borgen said. "We hope to receive the union’s specific economic proposals, such as wages and pension, during our next meeting on May 2, in order to move forward with negotiations on a number of very important issues. American Crystal remains optimistic that the two parties will be able to come to a timely agreement."