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Their ranks thinned by a 16-month lockout, American Crystal Sugar Co. workers were voting Saturday on whether to accept a contract they have rejected three times previously.
Contract opponents say the sugar beet processor's five-year contract offer would cut health care benefits and weaken job security and seniority protections. The company says the offer would raise worker pay by 17 percent over five years when a $2,000 signing bonus is taken into account.
Leaders of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International union said they were uncertain what the result would be. Voting continues until 5 p.m.
"It depends on how many members show up," said John Riskey, the head of a union local that represents employees at three American Crystal factories.
The lockout began in Aug. 1, 2011, and affected about 1,300 workers at plants in Drayton and Hillsboro, N.D., and Minnesota factories in Moorhead, Crookston and East Grand Forks. More than 500 of those workers have since left, said Brian Ingulsrud, an American Crystal vice president.
The company has used replacement workers to continue operating the plants.
Moorhead, Minn.-based American Crystal is a cooperative owned by about 2,800 sugar beet growers. It is the nation's largest sugar beet processor, selling 90 percent of its production to industrial customers, including candy makers, bakeries and breakfast cereal makers.
The lockout began after 96 percent of the workers voting on the company's contract proposal rejected the offer on July 31, 2011. In subsequent ballots, 90 percent of the voting workers turned down the proposal in November 2011, and 63 percent rejected it in June.
In October, the AFL-CIO called for a boycott of Crystal's products. Some of the company's sugar is sold in grocery stores under Crystal's own label. It is sold as "Market Pantry" sugar in Target Corp. stores in Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin.