FARGO, N.D. (AP) - Locked-out union employees at American Crystal Sugar Co. rejected the company's contract proposal a third time Saturday in a nearly 11-month dispute that focuses on seniority and job security.
The union announced that 63 percent of voters opted against the latest offer. Union employees said Crystal was out to break the union, while the company has said it offered a good contract with substantial increases in wages and benefits.
"We know that give-and-take negotiations are the only way to get this cooperative back on track to productivity and profitability," the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union statement said. "That cooperation has produced record profits in recent years, and, only through cooperating, will we be successful again."
In a statement posted on American Crystal's contract talks website, the company said it is "disappointed" in the union's rejection, but it "stands by our final offer."
"It is a solid and generous offer that includes wages increases at a time when many companies have cut employee wages and benefits," the company's statement said.
American Crystal vice president Brian Ingulsrud did not comment Saturday, other than to refer to the company's statement.
The labor dispute is the company's first in 30 years. The union said Saturday that 82 percent of the 1,300 workers took part in the vote. The company has said it will continue to operate with replacement workers.
American Crystal is the largest sugar beet processor in the country, with plants in East Grand Forks, Moorhead, Crookston and Chaska, Minn.; Hillsboro and Drayton, N.D.; and Mason City, Iowa. It's a cooperative owned by beet farmers.
Fearing a strike in the middle of processing season, the company locked out workers on Aug. 1 and hired replacements. Company officials expect the plants to ramp up production in mid-August this year, earlier than normal because of a large sugar crop.
The company's original offer included a 17 percent wage increase over five years - which is now closer to 14 percent because the contract had a deadline - and increased pension, leave and vacation benefits. The union continued to demand wage and pension increases "significantly above" the final offer, company officials have said.
The union's first vote, held before the lockout, turned down the contract with a 96 percent "no" vote. The second vote in November was 90 percent against the deal.
Mark Froemke, a longtime union member with more than 30 years with American Crystal, said Saturday that he and his wife voted against the contract, which they felt was inadequate. He said that the lower margin by which the contract was rejected was likely because fellow union members had suffered hardships.
"If you've been out of work for 11 months, there's wear and tear," Froemke said. "So there were more people that thought even though the contract is not desirable, that maybe it was something we had to revisit."
Froemke noted, though, that the 63 percent was "nothing to be sneezed at."
After the last negotiating session on June 8, the union said that its principal objections revolve around health care, drug testing, seniority and qualifications for promotions. In a statement after that session, American Crystal said that the "parties remain far apart."
Union spokesman John Riskey said Saturday the union is willing to continue talks, though none have been scheduled.
"The union's negotiating team is ready to meet with the company at any time and any place to get this settled," Riskey said.
Associated Press writer Erica Hunzinger in Chicago contributed to this report.