FARGO, N.D. - Locked-out union employees at American Crystal Sugar Co. rejected the company's contract proposal a third time Saturday in a dispute that focuses on seniority and job security.
The union announced that 63 per cent 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 co-operative back on track to productivity and profitability," the union statement said. "That co-operation has produced record profits in recent years, and, only through co-operating, 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 that 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. A message left with American Crystal vice-president Brian Ingulsrud was not immediately returned Saturday evening.
The labour dispute is the company's first in 30 years. The union said Saturday that 82 per cent of the 1,300 union members who have been out of work for nearly a year 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 North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. It's a co-operative owned by beet farmers.
The company's original offer included a 17 per cent wage increase over five years — which is now closer to 14 per cent 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 per cent "no" vote. The second vote in November was 90 per cent against the deal.
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. The union said the company made it clear in that meeting its not willing to compromise on any issue.
The union's statement Saturday also thanked "relatives, friends, neighbours and union sisters and brothers" for supporting the locked-out workers.
"Your strong support will continue to be needed as we strive to reach a fair resolution," the statement said.
After the June negotiating session, American Crystal said in a statement that the "parties remain far apart."
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.
Associated Press writer Erica Hunzinger in Chicago contributed to this report.