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Politics & Government

Locked out American Crystal workers seeking unemployment benefits

An attorney for locked-out American Crystal Sugar workers says those employees deserve unemployment benefits – because the lockout wasn’t their idea.

However, the company and Job Service-North Dakota say state law does not allow them to receive that benefit.

The dispute is now before the North Dakota Supreme Court. During oral arguments, attorney Daniel Phillips – representing more than 200 Crystal workers who were denied unemployment benefits – argues the lockout is not a strike called by the union.

"None of these unemployed individuals are out because of their behavior," Phillips told the Court. "The employer chose to keep them out."

Phillips said the action has forced many of the workers to go on public assistance programs.

"They were forced to go on welfare and food stamps," said Phillips. "They were forced to depend on charity from their local churches and their union brothers and sisters. "

Crystal’s attorney, Paul Zach of Minneapolis, argues North Dakota’s statute does not draw a difference between strikes and lockouts.

"If the Legislature had intended to remove lockout from this provision, they could have used the word 'lockout,'" said Zach. "They intentionally chose not to."

Plaintiffs claim legislators did discuss lockouts when they crafted the 1981 legislation. Zach said he's listened to tapes of that discussion.

"The reality is, the discussion doesn't make it into the legislation," Zach told the Court.

Workers in the other two states where American Crystal has locked-out workers – Minnesota and Iowa– are receiving unemployment benefits.

The Supreme Court is reviewing the case.

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