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Union members reject American Crystal contract a third time

American Crystal Sugar

Members of the Bakery Workers union in the Red River Valley rejected a contract offered by American Crystal Sugar. Co. for the third time on Saturday, the union said.

With 82 percent of members voting, 63 percent voted "no" to the contract that Crystal management has said is its final offer.

"I guess it goes to show that in our democratic organization, 63 percent of our members are still standing strong, even after 11 months," said John Riskey, president of Local 167G. "They're still speaking and want a good settlement."

About 1,300 union workers have been locked out since Aug. 1, the day after they first voted overwhelmingly against the contract. Saturday's "no" vote was the lowest of the three votes so far.

Local 167G represents workers at Crystal processing plants in East Grand Forks, Moorhead and Drayton, N.D. The union also represents workers at plants in Crookston and Hillsboro, N.D., and packaging and transportation site in Chaska, Minn., and Mason City, Iowa.

A phone message left for Crystal Vice President of Administration Brian Ingulsrud was not immediately returned.

Fewer say 'no'

Initially, a new five-year contract was rejected by 96 percent of union members on July 31. When they voted again Nov. 1 to a slightly amended offer, it was rejected by 90 percent.

Riskey said the contract the union voted on Saturday was identical to the one that was offered in November.

"We did hold the vote on a Saturday, trying to get as many people as we can," he said. "I be-lieve the hardship -- people are trying to do what they can to provide for their families. It's hard for them to come in and vote."

A fourth round of talks ended June 8 with the sides no closer to an agreement. On June 14, union members decided to take another vote.

Crystal, a farmer-owned cooperative, has said the contract offers fair wage and benefit increases.

What's at stake

The union has said its principal objections revolve around health care, drug testing, seniority and qualifications for promotions. The union said the company made it clear in that meeting it's not willing to compromise on any issue.

Riskey called on company leaders to return to the negotiating table.

"If the company is interested in ending the lockout, they'll come to the table and negotiate," he said. "The management hasn't budged an inch and the ball is in their court."

He said Crystal has left money on the table by using less experienced and effective replacement workers and returning to work would be beneficial for both sides.

"With the crop, it looks like it will be one of the biggest in history," he said. "They need to get this settled and get us back in there and being productive."