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This story affects my family because my sister is married to a sugar beet farmer. He’s quite reticent about his finances, but some years he does fairly well and some years the weather is bad and he loses money. He grows sugar beets, which aren’t edible.

He trucks his beets to a beet pile area and then the beets go to factories and are made into white sugar, like what you’d sprinkle on your Cheerios or stir into your coffee. The beets are converted to sucrose (basically the same thing you get from sugar cane). They don’t get turned into fructose (or high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is made from corn). If you have ever bought “Mexican Coca Cola” with the red bottle caps, it contains sucrose. The regular “American Coke” almost always has HFCS, which is fructose from corn. More below the orange squiggle of “I want to read more”

American Crystal Sugar (ACS) is a farmer-owned cooperative. It’s sort of like that other farmers’ co-op that makes that famous cranberry juice. ACS is a regional cooperative for farmers, not a big multinational company. So they are relatively good (as companies go). The company is owned by the farmers (including my brother in law).

Incidentally, if you care about this kind of thing, most sugar beet farmers have switched to genetically modified (GM) crops that are “Round-Up Ready” (RUR, no connection to “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” the 1921 Czech science fiction play that invented the word ‘robot’ based on the Jewish folktales of a Golem (short version: a robot is similar to a Frankenstein’s monster)).  It’s ironic that RUR can refer to GM crops because people call then “frankenfoods.”

Round Up is a weed killer/herbicide that kills weeds and it does the job pretty efficiently. If your sugar beets are RUR then you spray a chemical on the fields to kill the weeds but not your crop (because it’s GM and it’s “Ready” for Round Up).

In the old days, beet farmers had to hire people to remove the weeds by hand. 100 years ago, there were recent immigrants from Europe (Finns and Swede,s Germans and Irish). Sometimes if they weren’t available the farmers would get high school kids to pick weeds from the fields. 40 years ago, there were migrant farm workers (mostly Mexicans who would come with their families and stay in a house on the farmer’s property and then move on). But it became more difficult to hire migrant workers for two reasons:  1) some of them were in the country illegally and the Feds were getting stricter, but, more importantly, 2) the states were checking the houses used by migrants and saying the houses needed running water and working toilets. Electricity, too. The farmers decided that rather hire migrant workers and fix up the houses, it was cheaper to use genetically-modified crops and spray with chemicals than to hire people to stoop down and remove the weeds.

Back to American Crystal Sugar.

A few weeks ago, the company locked out the 1300 union workers at the sugar-producing plants. Then they hired scabs to run the sugar factories . The union contract expired and the two sides (the farmer-owned co-op) and the union (the people who know how to run the sugar factories) couldn’t agree on a new contract.

Apparently the sticking point is not wages but health insurance. The price of health care is going up. The company wants workers to pay a bigger share of the health insurance. The union doesn’t want to pay more.

Which brings me to the main point of this whole post.

The unionized plant workers have been locked out by the company. This includes ACS workers in both Minnesota and North Dakota. They’re unemployed because the company locked them out. In Minnesota, the locked-out workers in Moorhead and East Grand Forks can get unemployment insurance (because they’re unemployed because the company locked them out and Minnesota makes allowances for that). But the North Dakota workers can’t file for unemployment insurance (because ND has a law that says locked-out workers can’t get UI). Here is a link to this: Frustration Mounts as American Crystal Lockout Continues.

It sucks.

But I thought it might spark a conversation. Any comments?

Originally posted to Dbug on Sun Aug 28, 2011 at 12:08 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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