American Crystal lockout based on contract language, not pay

News from Greater Minnesota

Union workers have been locked out at four American Crystal Sugar plants in Minnesota over proposed contract language they say can make layoffs easier. The plants are in Moorhead, East Grand Forks, Chaska and Crookston as well as in Hillsboro and Drayton, N.D., and Mason City, Iowa. Amy Dalrymple of the Fargo Forum has been all over the story with Monday’s “first day of the strike” story and a newsy second-day follow today. The gist: More than 1,200 — or about 97 percent — of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local Union 167G voted against a contract they say will allow American Crystal to send jobs to subcontractors. American Crystal leaders disagree, saying they can’t lay off workers by using subcontractors. Both sides have agreed on finances, Dalrymple reports: a 17 percent wage increase over five years and requiring employees to pay 17 percent of their medical costs instead of the 6 percent they pay now. Replacement workers contracted through a Mankato firm arrived Monday to fill the shifts. Union members in Moorhead plan to be stationed at the plant’s six gates 24 hours a day. My opinion: I suspect that as the beet harvest gathers steam and the workers sit idle, that contract language will sort itself out.

It might be trite to call this a case of looking for the cow after the barn door was left open, but in response to the deadly July 2 fire at the Bohemian Bed and Breakfast in New Ulm, Anthony Lonetree of the Star Tribune produced a story today about fire-inspection regulations for B&Bs in some cities across the state. He found that regulations vary wildly. The state fire marshal inspects lodging of six units or more every three years. But most B&Bs have fewer than six rooms. “Among cities contacted by the Star Tribune, St. Paul, Red Wing and Stillwater require no post-opening visits by their inspectors,” Lonetree writes. “Asked whether the state Department of Public Safety, which includes the state fire marshal’s office, has considered including smaller B&Bs in the inspection rotation, spokesman Doug Neville said such an idea was not on the radar of state officials. ‘There are staffing issues for us,’ he said. Lowering the inspection threshold to a couple of rooms, he said, ‘could carry a hefty price tag.’ ” It’s quotes like this that make me recall the recent Minnesota government shutdown and the battle over taxes and funding. Anti-government activists just never see the big picture, I guess.

Speaking of taxes and funding, Meg Alexander of the Fairmont Sentinel writes about that city’s prediction that the state will be in worse financial condition two years from now. “What the state did to solve the budget this time around created already a $4 billion deficit for the next biennium,” said Jim Zarling, Fairmont city administrator, referring to the state borrowing from tobacco settlement funds and delaying payments to schools. And cities are worried the Legislature’s solution will continue. Zarling trotted out some numbers: Fairmont lost $270,000 in state funding in 2008, $229,000 in 2009 and $529,000 in 2010. In addition, cities pay market value credit for property taxes, even though the state can’t afford to pay cities back. In 2010, Fairmont lost $244,000 and another $246,000 loss is estimated for 2011. Recently, the city was told local government aid it would have received on July 20 will be late because of the state government shutdown, and aid for 2011 has been cut by $420,000. “We’ve done pretty well considering we’ve lost over $1.1 million in local government aid,” Zarling said. There has been talk at the Legislature to cut local government aid all together. LGA comprises 60 percent of Fairmont’s general fund. “If we lose that, I don’t know what the answer would be,” Zarling said. “I don’t know that we have the ability to replace all that with property tax. I think there would be a revolt.”

Find those budget numbers oppressive? Try these from Bill McAuliffe of the Strib: July was the fifth-hottest July on record in the Twin Cities. July’s 5.23 inches of rain was 29 percent above normal and rain fell on 13 days. It fell on four out of five weekends. The high temp was above 90 for 10 days. The Twin Cities reached a record 82-degree dew point July 19 with a record heat index of 119. The temperature never dropped below 80 on July 20, a record “high low.” July had 96 hours of dew points of 75 degrees or higher; the old record was 78 hours set in 2001. “The outlook for August, September and October from the national Climate Prediction Center identifies a trend toward higher-than-normal temperatures for much of eastern Minnesota and higher-than-normal precipitation for the western half.”

I have always been fascinated by my old hometown of St. Cloud. In my opinion, St. Cloud is a place of both amazing tolerance and intolerance. I was pleased to read in the Daily Times about a GLBT rally and parade last week supported by what reporter Amy Bowen called “dozens of people.” But to (perhaps unintentionally) show St. Cloud’s duality on the issue of homosexuality, Bowen points out in the third paragraph that Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud,  is the lead sponsor of the 2012 ballot initiative to amend the state Constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman. (Full disclosure: Gottwalt and I graduated from high school together near St. Cloud 31 years ago. We have had limited association with one another since.) The first event was the Above the Clouds Pride March at St. Cloud State University. The second was a rally in Waite Park sponsored by St. Cloud’s PFLAG chapter. PFLAG member Myrna Ohmann worked the information booth. Her oldest son, Martin, is gay. “We want them to know it’s OK,” Ohmann said. “They were born this way. They are God’s wonderful gift to the human community.”

A hobo from Minnesota was killed in a bicycle accident last Friday near Britt, Iowa. Kristin Buehner of the Mason City Globe-Gazette wrote in a story picked up by the Albert Lea Tribune that Randy Nomeland, also known as Railroad Randy, 60, was riding eastbound at 10:30 p.m. Friday when he was struck by an SUV. The accident remains under investigation. “He lived off the land. He claimed to be the last of a dying breed,” said his sister, Robin Franks of Greenville, Texas. He was carrying his tent on his bicycle when he was killed. He found jobs wherever he traveled, performing landscaping, cleaning or restaurant work. Robin said she last talked with Randy two weeks ago when he told her he was headed to Britt for the National Hobo Convention, Aug. 11-14. Connecticut Shorty of Britt, a hobo friend, said Randy had been working with other hobos who had arrived early to clean the picnic area and rest rooms in the hobo jungle. According to their brother’s wishes, Randy’s siblings plan to have his body cremated and his ashes strewn at the Hobo Convention. The fact that Randy died in Britt “is a great thing,” said his brother, Timothy, of Minneapolis. “That’s where he wanted to be.”

Worried about all those sand wasps in southeastern Minnesota? Don’t be. They don’t sting, said Marshall Community Service Parks Superintendent Preston Stensrud. Elaine Zarzana of the Marshall Independent  writes that the wasps were introduced to control cicada populations, but their numbers have expanded more rapidly than anticipated. There have been rumors about aggressive “Asian hornets,” but Stensrud said these rumors are false. But the sand wasps are wicked-looking: “The largest I have seen was about an inch-and-a-half long,” Stensrud said. “They look they’d be really mean, like they’d be something to be afraid of, but they’re not.”

Talk about a bummer. About 270 Essentia Health System employees got a bonus in their paychecks July 22, only to be told a week later that the disbursement was a mistake and they have to pay it back. Candace Renalls of the Duluth News Tribune writes that the lump-sum payments went to medical support staff represented by the United Steelworkers Local 9460 who had step raises coming by June 30, the end of their contract year. The amount varied, depending on pay rate and number of hours worked. Trouble was, one-quarter of the employees who got the lump sums shouldn’t have because they had already received their step increases. “It was a glitch in the software,” said Kim Kaiser, an Essentia spokeswoman. Some of the checks were for as much as $600. More than $135,000 was disbursed, she said.

John Fitzgerald is a longtime journalist and Minnesota resident. He lives in Buffalo.

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