For Union Members, Defeat at Crystal Sugar Anything But Sweet

Mike Elk

For 22 months, workers were locked out of employment at American Crystal Sugar plants like this one in East Grand Forks, Minn. (GFPeck / Flickr / Creative Commons)

When work­ers in a labor strug­gle are forced to agree to major con­ces­sions, labor lead­ers and allies often find ways to recast the defeat as a long-term vic­to­ry. Often, they say that los­ing a tough fight opened up work­ers’ eyes to the lengths they must go to in order to win the next one.

In 2011, for instance, labor cir­cles wide­ly cel­e­brat­ed the mas­sive Wis­con­sin protests of Gov­er­nor Scott Walker’s anti-union bill, which stripped pub­lic employ­ees of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights and forced unions to give mas­sive con­ces­sions in terms of wages and ben­e­fits. Still, many felt that Wis­con­sin was a turn­ing point because it inspired unions to fight back in ways pre­vi­ous­ly thought unimag­in­able — the crowds of pro­test­ers, num­ber­ing near­ly 100,000, con­tin­u­ous­ly occu­pied the Capi­tol for three weeks. Even after labor lost its bid to recall Walk­er, AFL-CIO Pres­i­dent Richard Trum­ka declared, We want­ed a dif­fer­ent out­come, but Wis­con­sin forced the gov­er­nor to answer for his efforts to divide the state and pun­ish hard­work­ing peo­ple. Their resolve has inspired a nation to fol­low their lead and stand up for the val­ues of hard work, uni­ty and decen­cy that we believe in.”

No mat­ter what was giv­en up at the bar­gain­ing table — even if the bar­gain­ing table was thrown out the win­dow — rarely will a labor leader come out and say that a loss was a bad one, or that mis­takes were made. Labor lead­ers, after all, are sub­ject to the same fear of mis­takes jeop­ar­diz­ing their next cam­paign as oth­er elect­ed offi­cials. And for the work­ers, there’s basic human psy­chol­o­gy at hand: Peo­ple like to see that their strug­gles weren’t for nothing.

But while spin­ning defeat into qua­si-vic­to­ry may make activists feel bet­ter, do mas­sive loss­es real­ly inspire future efforts? After one such set­back in the Red Riv­er Val­ley, which spans the bor­der between North Dako­ta and Min­neso­ta, union activists are wrestling with this question. 

When the cross-coun­try Sol­i­dar­i­ty of Sum­mer labor tour stopped last Sat­ur­day in Moor­head, Minn., the talk among local labor activists was of the 22-month lock­out of sug­ar work­ers, which end­ed in April with a bit­ter loss. After con­tract nego­ti­a­tions went sour in 2011, Crys­tal Sug­ar locked out 1,300 work­ers — mem­bers of the Bak­ery, Con­fec­tionery, Tobac­co Work­ers, and Grain Millers (BCT­GM) union — at five plants in Min­neso­ta, Iowa and North Dako­ta. For near­ly two years, the work­ers held out, turn­ing down the con­tract, which they felt was con­ces­sion­ary, in four sep­a­rate votes. 

But this spring, the locked-out work­ers reached the end of their finan­cial resources and those of the union, and decid­ed on the fifth vote to accept the con­tract. The result­ing agree­ment raised their health­care costs and reduced their union rights. (To read more on the lock­out, read my fea­ture sto­ry last year, The Shock and Slow Bleed of Lock­outs.”)

The lock­out exact­ed a bit­ter toll on the union, which emerged from the 22-month fight with its size, and there­fore its lever­age, reduced by half. Over the course of the near­ly two-year strug­gle, approx­i­mate­ly 600 of the 1,300 work­ers found oth­er jobs and did not return to work when the con­tract deal was reached. Instead, the com­pa­ny kept on the scab replace­ment work­ers as con­trac­tors, inel­i­gi­ble for the union.

They got their ass­es kicked,” says Dana Hillius, pres­i­dent of the North­ern Plains Unit­ed Labor Coun­cil of North Dako­ta, the local AFL-CIO affil­i­ate that coor­di­nates unions for the North­ern Plains of North Dako­ta, of the group’s efforts. But he quick­ly notes the bright side: An oppor­tu­ni­ty for more cre­ative orga­niz­ing. I think, though, it’s been ener­giz­ing to look at the kind of tac­tics that we were talk­ing about doing in North Dako­ta — it’s a lot of dif­fer­ent ideas that have nev­er been done here before, even if they didn’t come to fruition. Peo­ple are talk­ing about more direct action and not just picketing.” 

Oth­ers say that the lock­out woke peo­ple up and that labor would be more vig­i­lant and ready for the next fight with man­age­ment. I know of no [pre­vi­ous] lock­outs in the Red Riv­er Val­ley and I have been active since 1978. Lock­outs’ were you locked your­self out of your car, not you’re locked out of your job,” says Mark Froemke, pres­i­dent of the West­ern and Red Riv­er Val­ley Area Labor Coun­cil. I think what hap­pened is that for a lot of peo­ple they under­stood that they need their union and they need to fight and pro­tect it. And the boss, if you don’t defend your­self, will take advan­tage of you and screw you in the end.”

I think until every­body in the work­ing class rec­og­nizes that they are get­ting stumped on, that it’s not going to get bet­ter,” says Jason Alli­son, a mem­ber of Unit­ed Steel­work­ers Local 560 who works in Gwinder, N.D. I know I have wok­en up. I think we real­ly had to be turn­ing a blind eye to not see what is going on.”

Even elect­ed state leg­is­la­tors weighed in on the pos­si­ble advan­tages of the out­come. It is tough for me to say to what degree good came out of it,” says Min­neso­ta State Rep. Ben Lien. I am not a mem­ber of that union; I am not feed­ing my fam­i­ly with that job. I think some good things did come out of it: Get­ting peo­ple to look at the sit­u­a­tion and say, wow, this is an impor­tant mat­ter. I think it real­ly opened folks’ eyes and got peo­ple behind the union movement.”

But not every­one sees the defeat in such an opti­mistic light. Twen­ty-year Crys­tal Sug­ar vet­er­an Scott Rip­plinger of East Grand Forks, Minn., a union shop stew­ard who was among those locked out, believes that the fight’s lack­lus­ter con­clu­sion will dis­cour­age work­ers in the region. Rip­plinger was fired after the lock­out end­ed; he says the com­pa­ny accused him of dis­or­der­ly con­duct and of threat­en­ing and hit­ting scabs. Rip­plinger believes, how­ev­er, that his fir­ing and that of anoth­er union activist were meant to deter future orga­niz­ing with­in the already great­ly reduced group.

They didn’t want peo­ple like me,” he says. They didn’t want me to recruit those scabs and turn them into a union activist like myself.” 

Rip­plinger also believes the lock­out and loss will fright­en rather than embold­en unions at oth­er plants. 

I wish it would real­ly prop up the sup­port and increase the will to fight, [but] I think it’s made a lot of union work­ers scared,” says Rip­plinger. Peo­ple aren’t gonna want to fight that long when they saw us fight­ing for 22 months and then accept a con­tract that was worse than the orig­i­nal offer.” (Although the word­ing was the same, the con­tract was worse in that after so many work­ers left, it cov­ered dra­mat­i­cal­ly few­er employ­ees and left the union with less leverage.) 

To those who say the lock­out strength­ened the ties of the labor move­ment as a whole, Rip­plinger points out some of the details of the 22-month saga. The lead­ers of the BCT­GM union tried to push a yes” vote on the mem­bers four times, he says, despite the fact that the no” vote sec­tion was well-orga­nized enough to repeat­ed­ly defeat it. This is a com­mon sto­ry: Lead­er­ship often push­es the col­lec­tive to set­tle against their wish­es out of fear of exhaust­ing the union’s lim­it­ed finan­cial resources. Rip­plinger says that the con­stant fight­ing between the lead­er­ship-backed yes” group and the no” group pre­vent­ed the orga­ni­za­tion from being unit­ed in con­fronting the company. 

We didn’t real­ly fight. We weren’t allowed; we were kin­da hand­cuffed by our lead­ers and their purse,” says Rip­plinger. I think we need to get back to labor lead­ers of old who were will­ing to fight tooth and nail, side-by-side with the rank and file.”

Rip­plinger believes that labor as a whole will only start win­ning the big fights again if it has frank con­ver­sa­tions that most lead­ers aren’t com­fort­able with — about what goes wrong dur­ing labor strug­gles such as the Crys­tal Sug­ar lock­out and about putting every­day work­ers back in charge of unions. Rip­plinger says events like the Sum­mer of Sol­i­dar­i­ty tour, which aims to con­nect union mem­bers around the coun­try, is the kind of thing the move­ment needs. 

We need orga­ni­za­tions like the AFL-CIO to back things like the Sum­mer of Sol­i­dar­i­ty tour and real­ly have these small labor move­ments, and that’s what’s going to build our sup­port,” says Rip­plinger. (Sum­mer of Sol­i­dar­i­ty was fund­ed by crowd­sourc­ing efforts on Indiegogo.)

For his part, Hillius agrees that work­ers need more than just chest-beat­ing about the valiance of the fight; he says labor offi­cials like him­self must also have the courage to ask tough questions.

I hope we real­ize the good things to come from this lock­out and take them,” says Hillius, but he also acknowl­edges that we need to admit when the union don’t do some­thing right and do some­thing different.”

As the AFL-CIO debates new mod­els of orga­niz­ing, includ­ing allow­ing clos­er coor­di­na­tion of the labor move­ment, some say it must take a hard look at its inter­nal struc­ture before try­ing to draw in new allies. Along the Sum­mer of Sol­i­dar­i­ty tour, plen­ty of on-the-ground activists like Scott Rip­plinger are hop­ing that the AFL-CIO looks at lock­outs like Crys­tal Sug­ar and rec­og­nizes the need for a lead­er­ship overhaul.

We need a big vic­to­ry to revive the labor move­ment,” Rip­plinger says, But we aren’t going to be able to do that til we give rank and file con­trol over the purse strings.”

This is the fourth in a series by In These Times staff writer Mike Elk, who is trav­el­ing for two weeks with the Sum­mer of Sol­i­dar­i­ty tour. To help In These Times cov­er his trav­el expens­es and to send more reporters to cov­er grass­roots activism around the coun­try, donate here.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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