The already strained relationship between management of American Crystal Sugar Company (ACSC) and its 1,300 locked out workers was dealt another serious blow when recordings of anti-worker statements by ACSC President and CEO Dave Berg were made public this week.
In a meeting of company shareholders on November 7 in Grafton, N.D., Berg likened the workers to a 21-pound cancerous tumor. According to an audio recording of the meeting, Berg 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.”
Workers have responded with disappointment and outrage. Sarah Gust, who has worked at ACSC for 40 years remarked, “The fact that Dave Berg would refer to our union, our contract as a cancerous tumor is deeply offensive to me and many of my co-workers. Some of us have had cancer or have lost loved ones to cancer. It’s a tragic, devastating disease. And that’s how Crystal Sugar management sees our union. I tell you, this just shows how much respect Dave Berg and the management have for us workers.”
Berg went on to say that the company had a long term strategy to deal with the union. “Joe [Talley, CFO] and I and others… many many many others mapped this out a long time ago,” he said. He told shareholders that his strategy would be costly, “it is expensive. We’re investing a lot of your money so you’ll be more profitable in the future.” He repeated his cancer analogy again, saying “At some point that tumors got to come out. That’s what we’re doing.”
News of the offensive remarks came the week after the company began placing help wanted ads locally and as far away as Bismarck, North Dakota. After locking out workers four months ago, the company hired replacements through Minnetonka-based Strom Engineering. The company says it is moving to the next phase of its “contingency plan” by offering wages significantly below those of locked out workers.
“This is just Crystal Sugar executives’ cynical attempt to demoralize locked out workers, depress local labor standards, and drive a wedge between us and our neighbors. Now we hear Dave Berg calling our contract a cancer tumor,” said Ken Lamberson, who has worked for ACSC for 16 years. “Our contract represents years of struggle to protect good jobs at Crystal and build a mutually respectful relationship with management. Now, Dave Berg is throwing all of that away for greed.”
“We’ve seen Dave Berg’s true colors. He is determined to treat contract negotiations as a disease, a tumor to be removed. We’ve said from the start that we want to negotiate, as long as management comes to the table with reasonable proposals, and not the same take-it-or-leave-it ultimatums,” said John Riskey, President of BCTGM Local 167G.
In response to Berg’s comments, locked out workers say they have their own contingency plans. Workers are enlisting the support of their communities and union members across the United States. They are raising funds to support workers and their families for however long it takes to end the lockout and win a fair contract that benefits workers, growers, and the company.