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Playing With Fire: Crystal Sugar Locks Out Experienced Union Workers

by dyna on October 29, 2011

Another day, another fire at an American Crystal Sugar plant being run (badly) by inexperienced scabs. ACS is, quite literally playing with fire. And the risk of a flaming halocaust is not overblown- these are huge plants the size of small towns, towering higher than even many big city fire trucks can reach. And there’s plenty of fuel for the fire- dry sugar beats are flammable, you can even make ethanol from them, and plants stockpile them by the truckload in piles several stories high. So there’s very real potential of a massive, wind blown (we get plenty of wind out here) total conflagration at the sugar plants. All these tiny to small town’s volunteer fire departments would be able to do is evacuate the populace and let the fire burn itself and the sugar plant out.

There’s no “idiots” guide to running sugar plants, and food processing plants in general. A couple decades ago I worked for a huge wholesale bakery. You learned how to run a bakery from the old hands, who passed on the knowledge to you that they’d similarly acquired from the previous generation of bakers. The company had manuals, but they were written by writers not bakers- If you actually followed the manual, you’d produce some nasty bread if you didn’t set the bakery on fire.

Couple years back a friend and I considered buying a small rural elevator and feed mill. The price was attractive and my partner had experience maintaining track and locomotives and I’d learned a bit of industrial maintainence at the bakery and later the Postal Service. But run a grain elevator or mill? We were lost, and sure as heck we’d probably screw up and drive our customers away while we learned at their expense- Buying a mill and elevator for a six figure sum is attractive until you screw up and ruin a 7 figure sum’s worth of grain!

It’s the same way with really big sugar plants- in fact, the bigger plants allow you to screw up in even more and bigger ways. In the last days our bakery operated some newbie bakers were brought in to run the place as the old heads had transferred elsewhere. They made the newbie mistake of turning on every electrical motor at once and blowing the transformer supplying the bakery. After we sat around for damn near the whole shift waiting for the electric company to replace the blown transformer, the newbie bakers did the same thing again and blew another transformer. When they finally managed to get the plant running hours later, they forgot that the folks that wrapped the bread at the end of the line had been sent to lunch… A 20 foot dumpster full of bread was dumped on the floor before they caught their mistake!

Sadly, we can export more stupid newbie mistakes and fires at American Crystal Sugar if management doesn’t wake up and put their experienced union workers back on the job. ACS has been lucky so far… But they’ve only got a handful of plants and rebuilding one from a catastrophic fire would take it out of production for years. Meanwhile, ACS’s competitors (some of whom are foreign) would grab ACS’s market share for good.

Hopefully ACS and it’s farmer owners will come to there senses and bring their experienced union workers back before that tragedy happens.

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