(Tula Connell published this Blog post today on AFL-CIO-NOW)
Despite waking up with the flu one morning this week, Bonnie Holter headed out to take part in a 6 a.m. vigil outside the home of a member of the American Crystal Sugar Co. board of directors in East Grand Forks, Minn. Tired and ready to head back to bed after returning home, she still exuded the resolve that, despite having retired from American Crystal Sugar this year, propels her to actively back the 1,300 locked-out workers.
“It’s important to support the workers,” says Holter, 60. “They were our family. I was proud to be a union member and I still want to help the union out.”
Holter and her husband, Jerome, who most people call Jay, spent decades working for the sugar beet processing company before management locked out workers in August 2011.
The company took the action after the workers, members of five BCTGM local unions, overwhelmingly rejected the company’s final offer, which included significant increases to workers’ health care costs and major changes to job security, including the right to outsource work and seniority language. Since then, American Crystal has hired replacement workers who have been unable to maintain the pace of the skilled workers and production—and profits—have spiraled downward.
(Sign a petition calling on American Crystal Sugar CEO Dave Berg to treat workers fairly and return to the bargaining table.)
Bonnie and Jay, who met each other at the plant and now live in a mobile home on rented land, each will receive $450 a month in retirement from American Crystal. Their combined pension is so low, it’s less than the $1,200 a month retiree health care coverage the company offers. Although each has worked there for nearly 30 years, the company’s work was seasonal until 1998, and that’s as far back as the company will go to count years of service to qualify for its retirement plan. Meanwhile, American Crystal CEO Dave Berg took in nearly $2.5 million in total compensation in 2011, the same year he told shareholders that union workers and their contract are like a “cancerous tumor” on the company.
Before they retired, Jay worked as an ion tech and Bonnie as an ion helper. As a tech, Jay desugarized the molasses byproduct to generate more usable sugar for production. Bonnie’s job involved loading and unloading molasses onto rail cars and trucks, and switching rail cars from track to track.
“I’m really disappointed in management that they could lock us out like that after all the years of service,” Bonnie says. “Jerome and I both put in 110 percent. When we first started there, we were proud to be working there. I’m just so disappointed that [management] could do this to us without conscience.”
The Holters, who have four grandchildren, also worry about how the lockout has torn their community. After 13 months without work, families are struggling, and it’s been “devastating for the children,” Bonnie says. It’s also ripped apart families. Some American Crystal workers are related to beet growers, who overwhelming oppose the workers’ refusal to take crumbs from the company.
Members of the union’s Solidarity Committee, the Holters are ready to pack up their 2004 truck anytime to go on the road and make the case for American Crystal Sugar workers.
“Even though I’m retired,” says Bonnie, “I believe that we should at least leave the workplace as good as we can for other workers.”