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Locked-out American Crystal Sugar workers reject offer for 4th time

FARGO - Locked-out American Crystal Sugar union workers rejected the company's contract offer for the fourth time on Saturday.

Fifty-five percent of union workers voted to reject the contract, down from the 63 percent that opposed the same offer earlier this summer.

John Riskey, president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, Local 176, placed the blame for the continued 16-month lockout on the company's management, and called for a return to contract negotiations.

"By now it should be clear that Dave Berg and Crystal Sugar's management team has no interest in ending a fiscally irresponsible lockout," Riskey said on Saturday night. "It's time for shareholders to reclaim their company and send management back to the table for real give-and-take negotiations."

Since the 1,300 workers were locked out on Aug. 1, 2011, the union has voted on essentially the same offer four times, with the percentage of workers voting "no" shrinking each time.

Ninety-six percent rejected the offer in July 2011, 90 percent rejected it three months later and 63 percent voted no in June.

Riskey declined to specify what percentage of union workers participated in Saturday's vote. In June, 82 percent of workers voted on the offer.

American Crystal representatives have said the contract is their "final offer," and that the contract would raise worker pay by 17 percent over five years.

However, union leaders say the contract would "dismantle union workers' health coverage," and also compromises safety and product quality with a disregard for the value of union workers.

In advance of the vote, the union had been emphasizing the grower-owned cooperative's diminished financial performance since the lockout began.

That theme was repeated by Riskey in a Saturday press release, where he pointed out that American Crystal's profits have fallen, production is down and the company's debt continues to rise.

In the coming days and weeks, Riskey said union leadership would look to have a conversation with workers about what steps to take next.

"We're going to continue what we have been doing," he said. "We're going to go out and talk to our members now and ask them what we can do to get this settled. The hurt's still going on in this community. We need to stop that."

American Crystal is the largest sugar beet processor in the country. It's a cooperative that's owned by the farmers who grow the beets. It accounts for 38 percent of the nation's sugar from beets and 15 percent of overall sugar production. It has plants in Minnesota in East Grand Forks, Moorhead, Crookston and Chaska; North Dakota plants in Hillsboro and Drayton, and one in Mason City, Iowa.

The plants have been operating with replacement workers since the lockout began.