The AFL-CIO is threatening to actively oppose the farm bill's sugar program if a Midwestern company doesn't end its nearly year-long employee lockout, a labor official familiar with the union's plans told the Alley.
The move would be significant because the sugar industry employs more than 100,000 workers, many of them in union shops, which depend on the sugar program. The program has been a staple of past farm bills and protects the sugar industry from global competitors.
The AFL-CIO wields hefty political influence and pulling its support for the program could generate some opposition. Even so, the program and its supporters have the wind at their backs politically speaking since it's included in the Senate and House versions of the farm bill.
Sugar lobbyists called the proposed move confusing.
"Why would unions withdrawal support to a program that's critical to unions?" the American Sugarbeet Growers Association's Luther Markwart said.
Other lobbyists wondered why labor would take such seemingly drastic steps.
"With all due respect, it'd be harmful to workers. ... it would not make sense to me," the American Sugar Alliance's Jack Roney said.
The labor official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the union is still finalizing its plans, said the lockout is a matter of "solidarity" with the workers at American Crystal Sugar who are suffering economically.
American Crystal Sugar government affairs director Kevin Price called the move a "puzzling approach" and said the company is ready to meet with workers but would not elaborate on the negotiations' sticking points.
Ending support for the sugar program would be an escalation of a fight that so far has only merited a threatened boycott from the union.
"In the event that there is no resolution soon to this lock out, the AFL-CIO is prepared to launch a nationwide consumer boycott of American Crystal Sugar products," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a letter earlier this month to American Crystal Sugar obtained by the Alley.
Price said that workers and management have not met since Sept. 5 and that nearly 1,000 replacement employees are working in the company's plants in North Dakota and Minnesota. He said the company is in "fine condition."