A Thousand Miles of Solidarity: Taking the Fight for Workers’ Rights on the Road
More than six months ago, American Crystal Sugar locked out 1,300 workers, hired replacements and security guards, and painted a line across the driveways of seven facilities in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Iowa. They told workers, many of whom had devoted decades to the company, that they would risk arrest if they crossed the line.
Since then, local, state, and federal politicians; religious leaders; community members; and the workers themselves have repeatedly called on Crystal Sugar’s president, David Berg, to end the lockout and return to the bargaining table. So far, their requests have fallen on deaf ears.
Yes, executives have said repeatedly that they are willing to meet with the union at any time. But, only as long as locked out workers are prepared to accept their final offer, an offer workers have overwhelmingly rejected twice. The company’s plan is clear: Do whatever it takes; spend whatever it costs, to deprive workers of a voice in their own workplace.
According to an audio recording of statements by Berg in a November meeting with shareholders, the company has had a long-term strategy to deal with the union. “I and others—many, many, many others—mapped this out a long time ago,” he said. He told shareholders that the strategy would be costly, “It is expensive. We’re investing a lot of your money so you’ll be more profitable in the future.”
In the same meeting, Berg said that the union contract is like a cancerous tumor. He told the story of a sick friend who was diagnosed with cancer and had a massive tumor removed. “That’s a scary deal. He was sick for a long time,” said Berg. “We can’t let a labor contract make us sick forever and ever and ever. We have to treat the disease and that’s what we’re doing here. … At some point that tumor’s got to come out.”
On January 30, members of the union bargaining committee met with a federal mediator and company representatives. Once again workers came to the session hoping to open a constructive dialog with the company on how to end the lockout and get union members back to work under a fair contract. And once again the company was unwilling to consider any of the workers’ proposals.
The implications of the Crystal Sugar lockout are far reaching. As America’s largest beet-sugar producer, Crystal Sugar sets the example of labor relations for the entire industry, and it is clear that other sugar companies are watching how the dispute resolves. If Crystal Sugar refuses to end the lockout and reach a fair agreement with its workers, the other companies could seize the opportunity to lower their labor standards.
But this struggle goes beyond the sugar industry. Thousands of workers are locked out of their jobs right now: 1,050 at Cooper Tire in Ohio; 750 at Rio Tinto Alcan in Quebec; 800 at HealthBridge/CareOne in Connecticut. These are just a few examples. As Laura Clawson of the Daily Kos notes, “For evidence of a war on workers, look no further than the rise of the lockout.”
Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times wrote recently that the number of strikes has dropped precipitously in the last two decades, while lockouts now “represent a record percentage of the nation’s work stoppages.” According to Professor Gary Chaison, who Greenhouse quotes, “This is a sign of increased employer militancy. Lockouts were once so rare they were almost unheard of. Now, not only are employers increasingly on the offensive and trying to call the shots in bargaining, but they’re backing that up with action—in the form of lockouts.”
Unions and their allies are fighting back against this war on workers. Case in point: From Fargo to Findlay: A Journey for Justice, a joint project of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) and the United Steelworkers (USW).
On February 22, locked out workers from American Crystal Sugar Co. and Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. will begin a 1,000 mile journey across America’s heartland, visiting six states in six days, taking part in rallies, fundraisers, and other actions with local union members and allies. Locked out workers will take their message to supporters—and call out the perpetrators of the war on workers. They’ll be blogging from the road and supporters will be able to show their solidarity in a variety of ways both in person and on-line. Jobs with Justice will ‘Be There’ along this journey. Chicago Jobs with Justice (JwJ) plans to support a National Day of Action on February 25 in support of the Cooper Tire workers as the Journey comes through Chicago. Stay tuned for more information about this exciting project.
On February 10, members of Central Florida JwJ showed their solidarity with locked out Crystal Sugar workers by leafleting a workshop of more than 200 participants during the American Sugarbeet Growers Association convention in Orlando, Florida.